Politics & Government

Congressional Democrats bring fight to restore Voting Rights Act to North Carolina

Halifax County, a majority-black county in northeastern North Carolina, shuttered two of its three early-voting sites during the 2018 elections due to cost issues brought on by a new state law mandating early voting sites be open for 12 hours per day.

The county ranked last among the state’s 100 counties in percentage of registered voters who voted at an early voting site, according to a News & Observer analysis of state voting data.

Now members of a U.S. House newly under Democratic control will visit the rural county — with a population of 52,849 stretched over 731 square miles — as they look to build a case for restoring parts of the Voting Rights Act. It is one of seven full hearings scheduled this year by an elections subcommittee of the House Administration Committee.

The meeting will be in the small town of Halifax, population 220, on April 18.

Kristin Scott, director of the Halifax County board of elections, said before the law change in North Carolina it cost the county around $22,000 to operate a single early voting site from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

But the law, which mandated a standard 12 hours of early voting (7 a.m. to 7 p.m.) if a county had more than one location, would have tripled the cost, Scott said in a phone interview. She said her county struggled to find poll workers even with just one site. The county closed its site in the southern end of the county and one in Roanoke Rapids, the county’s most populous town.

On the final two days of early voting at the county’s lone site — in the town of Halifax — Scott estimated the lines for voting reached 15 to 20 minutes.

“Considering the circumstances, one was successful. But we do want to have more early voting sites,” Scott said, especially in 2020 which will have a presidential, gubernatorial and Senate race on the ballot in North Carolina.

Rep. Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat and the chair of the elections subcommittee, said Halifax was chosen because small communities like it are the ones “who have systematically and regularly experienced voter violations and voter suppression. It’s just rampant.”

“We’re going to small communities who people forget about who are punished year after year after year, to get a chance to talk about what’s going on in their communities,” Fudge said.

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The Voting Rights Act

The Voting Rights Act, originally passed in 1965 and re-authorized several times through 2006, included a formula for determining which jurisdictions must obtain federal permission, or pre-clearance, before changing voting rules. Many states or jurisdictions across the South — where Jim Crow laws such as poll taxes and literacy tests had disenfranchised black voters — were in that category.

The entire state of North Carolina was not included, but 40 counties were, according to the Department of Justice. Halifax is one of the 40 counties.

The Supreme Court in 2013 declared the formula unconstitutional and called on Congress to update it to match current conditions. The court did not strike down the pre-clearance clause, but without the formula it is unenforceable.

“The Republican Congress refused to do it. Now we have a Democratic Congress and we’re going to do it,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat whose district includes Halifax County. “We’re going to create a basis for updating the formula. We’re not going to do it arbitrarily.

Hence the field hearings.

The subcommittee held a listening session in Texas earlier this month. It will hold its first formal hearing Feb. 19 in Atlanta. In addition to Georgia and North Carolina, the panel is scheduled to have hearings in North Dakota, Florida, Ohio, Alabama and Washington, D.C., before the end of May.

North Carolina has faced lawsuits over its congressional districts and other voting-related activities in recent years. A federal appeals court found in 2013 that a voter ID law had targeted African-Americans with “almost surgical precision.” In 2016, a three-judge panel found two of the state’s congressional districts to be unconstitutional due to racial gerrymandering, leading to a redrawing of the congressional map.

Democrats’ wish list

Updating the section of the Voting Rights Act was among the voting-related provisions in the House Democrats’ first bill of the new Congress. The For the People Act would make registering to vote easier, make Election Day a national holiday and prevent voter-roll purges based on failure to vote or respond to a notice by mail.

It also would restore the right to vote for felons who have completed their prison sentences. In North Carolina, people who are on probation for felony crimes cannot vote.

The bill also touches on campaign finance and ethics reforms.

The package faces steep odds of becoming law. Republicans control the Senate, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is strongly opposed to the bill. He has dubbed it the “Democrat Politician Protection Act.” McConnell mocked the bill on the Senate floor, saying it doesn’t address situations like the one in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.

The state board is investigating possible election fraud in the 9th district involving mail-in absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties. The board has yet to certify the results of the 2018 election. It will hold a hearing on Feb. 18 and 19 to discuss the case.

“He knows, as well as anybody else, that state elections are handled by the state, as long as they are not in violation of federal law,” Fudge said. “We have no jurisdiction until all of the state remedies have been exhausted, then, of course, we do then take jurisdiction because it was a congressional race. But until they exhaust their remedies, we have no jurisdiction.”

In 2006, the House Judiciary Committee had the task of compiling a record for reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act.

The committee, then chaired by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, held 20 hearings and amassed more than 15,000 pages that documented voter discrimination and showed the need for continued federal government oversight in the offending jurisdictions. The 2006 measure, which extended the Voting Rights Act for 25 years, was reauthorized overwhelmingly in both chambers of Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush. But that was before the Supreme Court stepped in.

“Any efforts to restore the VRA in (this) Congress, as well as any major legislation, are going to have to be bipartisan,” Sensenbrenner told McClatchy in December. “House Democrats are going to have to be willing to work with Republicans and compromise on certain issues.”

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