The virus that threatens our democracy

The virus that threatens our democracy

Image: Adobe Stock

The coronavirus – now rekindled in a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” – is forcing us yet again to adjust our daily routines and recalibrate our expectations of normalcy. Even people who got their shots early and thought they were in the clear are finding they need to keep their masks handy.

Perhaps the new normalcy will involve a more widespread and lasting adaptation to working from home, for those with suitable jobs. Perhaps it will continue to trigger economic shock waves benefiting some industries and punishing others.

What about our politics? Already the pandemic has highlighted the divide between so-called red and blue states, with anti-vaccine obstinacy marking fealty to former President Trump and his allies. Trump may acknowledge that the vaccines are effective, but he also enjoys painting pro-vaccine figures such as Dr. Anthony Fauci as misguided control freaks whom his supporters should distrust and resent.

Of course, when it comes to Trump, his pandemic leadership failures are by no means the worst sins he should have to answer for. Monstrous almost beyond reckoning is his still-festering campaign to delegitimize the 2020 election that he lost, unmistakably and convincingly, to Joe Biden.

The Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by a violent mob of his supporters bent on short-circuiting Congress’s final count of electoral votes and thus the certification of Biden’s victory was the bitter fruit of that campaign.

And in tandem with Trump’s efforts to maintain his hold on the White House, he has encouraged another infection to spread through our civic system: the belief that our elections have been and can be rigged. The many “election integrity” laws already enacted or being pushed by Republican lawmakers throughout the land flow directly from Trump’s cynical, absurd critique.

In North Carolina, that flow so far could be rated as an ominous trickle – in contrast to what’s been seen in voter-suppression hotspots such as Georgia, Texas and Arizona. Republicans who control our legislature must reckon with the threat of vetoes by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, whose party has enough strength in the state House and Senate to sustain those vetoes if its members stay united.

But as the current legislative session drags on, with problematic election changes lurking in the weeds, so to speak, it’s fair to assume GOP chiefs are angling to overcome Democratic opposition. One familiar tactic involves combining controversial measures with others that are popular or necessary, meaning that a “no” vote or a veto comes at a painful price.

Budget baggage

The massive state budget bill is a favorite place in which to tuck hot-button provisions that would have trouble surviving on their own. Packaged as Senate Bill 105, the budget is more than a month overdue, having cleared the Senate but still being tweaked by the House. The bill already has become a vehicle for Republicans’ election-related ax-grinding, as when it seeks to curb the State Board of Elections’ authority to settle lawsuits brought by voting rights advocates in the name of preventing “collusive” deals (see pages 227-8).

One settlement in particular, agreed to by the Democratic-controlled elections board and Democratic state Attorney General Josh Stein, set Republicans on fire last fall with outrage that could be politely described as unwarranted.

With the coronavirus posing obvious risks to in-person voters and with the state facing a flood of mailed-in absentee ballots – at the same time the U.S. Postal Service was struggling under Republican-imposed service cuts – the elections panel agreed to extend the deadline for receipt of those ballots from three days after Election Day to nine days, so long as they were mailed by Election Day. The extension applied only to the voting last fall.

It was a generous window, true enough. But federal courts up to the Supreme Court itself went along with the agreement, which settled a Democratic-backed lawsuit.

Top Republicans in the Senate have taken the lead in trying to restrict the number of mailed absentee ballots that have a fair chance of being counted. Senate Bill 326 would invalidate any ballot received after 7:30 p.m. on Election Day. So the three-day grace period would disappear.

Sure, many voters alert to the new rule would take care to mail their ballots in what seemed to be plenty of time. But uncertainty about mail deliveries would be a disincentive for those considering the absentee option. And voters would have less time to choose their candidates.

Not coincidentally, it seems, far more Democratic and Unaffiliated voters went the absentee route last fall than did Republicans, according to the state board’s data (see link to spreadsheet under “absentee count files”). SB 326, approved by the Senate on a party-line vote in June and parked since then in the House Rules Committee, could chip away at Democratic vote totals.

Salvaged ballots

Also figuring in last year’s pre-election lawsuits were rules for the processing of absentee ballots. Voting rights advocates sought to keep ballots from being discarded on the basis of what amounted to simple clerical mistakes, such as signing on the wrong line. A federal judge ordered that voters be given a chance to “cure,” i.e. correct, minor errors noted by officials at local elections boards, although the same judge made sure not to undercut the requirement that each completed ballot be properly signed by a witness attesting to the voter’s identity.

The Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice used state data to analyze the effectiveness of North Carolina’s absentee ballot cure process in the 2020 election. Its recent report puts the number of voters who were notified of mistakes on their absentee ballot paperwork, and thus allowed either to submit correct information or instead to vote in person, at nearly 20,000. That’s a good-sized chunk of votes that in times past wouldn’t have counted, with voters being none the wiser.

The State Board of Elections’ executive director, Karen Brinson Bell, in June issued updated instructions regarding absentee ballot cures. The premise continues to be that voters who mess up their ballots should be notified and given a fair chance to cast a valid vote, whether by submitting correct info, by completing a fresh ballot after the original is rejected or by voting in person.

Bell noted that the updated rules are supposed to apply to “all elections going forward.” However, the Southern Coalition points out that the rules are not embodied in a statute – making them a ripe target for legislators who’d rather the pool of absentee voters be kept small and shallow. Top Republicans already have clashed with Bell over the extent of her powers. It wouldn’t be a shock to see them try to override her with a crackdown on voters who hadn’t precisely followed absentee ballot instructions.

Big picture, big stakes

On other fronts, North Carolina’s voting rights struggle continues to play out. The controversy over whether voters will have to show photo identification – or perhaps submit such an ID when voting absentee — remains alive in the courts. And the legislature has yet to unveil new election district maps in keeping with results of the 2020 census, results the state is supposed to receive later this month.

Republican control in the General Assembly lets the party draw districts favorable to its candidates. But how favorable? That could depend on whether GOP chiefs are tired of seeing their gerrymandered maps that devalue some voters shot down in the courts, as they have been repeatedly in recent years.

Progress toward a less partisan redistricting process is a keystone of voting rights reforms pending in Congress, along with steps to insulate state officials responsible for vote-counting from interference by hyper-partisan legislators. This much is certain: Congress must push back when any state would aid and abet Trump’s efforts to undermine the credibility of our elections and the public’s trust in our democracy itself.

The N.C. Council of Churches supports strong voting rights protections not because they serve the interests of one candidate or another, one party or another. It does so because the right to vote in orderly, honest elections guarantees that each American can help chart the nation’s future in ways that he or she thinks is best for them personally and for all their fellow citizens, even especially for those coping with poverty, discrimination, poor health or lack of opportunity.

The right to vote thus affirms our worth as individuals – created, as people of faith believe, in God’s image. We cannot allow it to be compromised.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, wrote this commentary for the North Carolina Council of Churches, which was first to publish it.