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Lawsuits expected over major NC voting changes

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  • Voting advocates decry end of pre-registration
  • Sweeping changes

    Analysts say North Carolina’s House Bill 589 is the most sweeping voting legislation in the nation this year. The 56-page bill, passed along party lines, changes laws not only on voting but on campaign spending and spending disclosure.

    The bill awaits Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature. He is expected to sign it.

    Requires photo ID

    More than half the states have some kind of voter ID law, and North Carolina would join them in 2016. And it would join a more exclusive club: one of just five states with what the National Conference of State Legislatures calls a “strict” photo ID law.

    The bill specifies eight forms of valid ID such as a driver’s license. Not included: student IDs.

    Voters with no valid ID would cast a provisional ballot. But to have it count they would have to go to the elections board within six days (or nine days in presidential elections) and show a valid ID. (Voters without IDs could get them for free at DMV offices.)

    There are nearly 319,000 North Carolina voters – 40,700 in Mecklenburg County – without a driver’s license or state ID card, according to the state Board of Elections.

    Shortens early voting

    Since it began in 2000, early voting has been popular in North Carolina. Last November, more than 2.5 million voters cast early ballots.

    Beginning next year, the early voting period will be a week shorter.

    While all parties use it, Democrats use it more. Last fall, Democrat Barack Obama won North Carolina’s early vote even as he went on to lose the final statewide tally to Republican Mitt Romney. Obama took 54 percent of the early vote, a margin of 200,000 votes.

    Even with the shorter period, the bill requires county election boards to provide at least the same number of hours for early voting. In a compressed period, they’ll have to lengthen hours, find more voting sites, or both.

    Ends straight-ticket voting

    In a section called “Vote the person, not the party,” the bill repeals the law that has allowed North Carolinians to vote a straight-party ticket. The change takes effect next year.

    In 2012, 1.4 million North Carolina voters cast a straight Democratic ballot. That was 300,000 more than voted straight Republican.

    That helped keep the election close. Republican Mitt Romney outpolled Democrat Barack Obama by a slim 92,000 votes.

    Ends same-day registration

    Advocates of allowing voters to register when they cast ballots have long said it would boost turnout. In 2007, the legislature agreed.

    Last fall, 97,000 N.C. voters took advantage of same-day registration, including more than 8,700 in Mecklenburg County.

    Starting next year, that will no longer be allowed.

    Would not count votes cast in the wrong precinct

    Last fall, for reasons of convenience or confusion, at least a thousand Mecklenburg County voters went to the wrong precincts and cast provisional ballots. They were still counted.

    Under the bill, they wouldn’t be.

    People could no longer stop at the closest poll on their way home from work, and they could only vote in their own precinct. That would start in 2014.

    Ends pre-registration

    North Carolina has been one of 20 states that allowed people younger than 18 to pre-register to vote, though they couldn’t vote until they turned 18.

    Advocates say it helped get young people interested in the process and made them more likely to vote when eligible.

    The bill repeals that provision starting in September.

    Calls for more poll observers

    Up to now, the chairs of county political parties could designate two observers at each precinct or voting place. The bill allows them to name 10 additional at-large observers who could go anywhere in a county.

    And at any time, one of the new at-large observers could join the other two at a voting place. Critics have called them “vigilante” poll observers. That would take effect next year.

    Limits campaign finance disclosure

    Two changes.

    • Currently, ads and mailers by outside groups or parties must list their five largest donors over the previous six months. No longer.

    One law firm has advised business groups that the repeal provides “additional cover to those who donate to independent expenditures and electioneering communications.”

    • A growing number of outside groups have been spending money in North Carolina political races. Up to now, that money has had to be reported.

    Under the bill, however, groups could spend unlimited amounts of money during summer months – after the May primary through Sept. 6 – without disclosing the source or amount.

    They would have to disclose money spent only after Sept. 7 and only in even-numbered years.

    Raises contribution limits

    The bill would raise the amount of money people can give candidates and, for the first time, index the amount to inflation.

    It raises the maximum contribution from $4,000 to $5,000. It ties future limits to the Consumer Price Index, raising it in odd-numbered years beginning in 2015.

    Ends public funding of judicial elections

    In 2002, in an effort to prevent judges from conflicts of interest with campaign donors, North Carolina became the first state to enact a public financing system for its top judges. Other states have since used North Carolina as a model.

    Candidates for the state Supreme and Appeals courts qualified for money from the fund by agreeing to abide by spending limits. The money came from voluntary tax checkoffs and a $50 annual surcharge on fees attorneys paid to the state bar.

    Last year all the appellate court candidates participated. This spring, former Govs. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, and Jim Holshouser, a Republican, wrote letters defending the system, saying courts “must be protected from the corrosive influence of special-interest campaign money.”

    The bill repeals the public financing fund.

    Repeals “Stand-by-your ad” law

    In 1999 North Carolina became a pioneer in the effort to clean up political advertising by forcing candidates to take responsibility for their ads.

    The law required candidates, parties or political action committees to identify themselves on the air as sponsors of an ad.

    Three years later, with an amendment from Democratic Rep. David Price of Chapel Hill, the N.C. law became a model for a similar provision in the federal Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act known as McCain-Feingold.

    HB 589 repeals the “Stand-by-your-ad” law.

    Moves up presidential primary

    Starting in 2016, North Carolina voters could get a more consistent voice in presidential primaries.

    With some recent exceptions, particularly in the 2008 Democratic primary, nominees have been largely decided by the time North Carolina voters cast their primary ballots in May.

    The bill says if South Carolina holds its presidential primary before March 15, North Carolina would hold its primary the following Tuesday. South Carolina has clung to its status as one of the nation’s first primary states – and the first in the South.

    The provision would come with a cost. North Carolina would pay for two primary elections, with the one for state and local candidates continuing to take place in May.

    Tightens ban on lobbyists

    Under current law, lobbyists can’t give candidates “bundled” contributions, that is, donations from multiple people or clients.

    The new bill would ban lobbyists passing on even single contributions.

    Earlier this year two law firms, including Charlotte’s Moore & Van Allen, came under scrutiny after being tied to contributions from the sweepstakes gambling industry.

When Republican Gov. Pat McCrory signs North Carolina’s sweeping new elections bill as expected this month, critics will be ready to act, too – in court.

The bill not only contains one of the nation’s strictest photo ID laws but compresses the time for early voting and ends straight-ticket balloting. It would no longer count provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct.

The bill that emerged in the final days of this year’s legislative session goes beyond voting changes. It limits disclosure of outside campaign spending, ends public financing for judicial races and no longer makes candidates take responsibility for their ads.

“I have never seen a single law that is more anti-voter,” says Penda Hair, a lawyer with the Advancement Project, a civil rights group in Washington. “North Carolina now joins a very short list of (states) that seem … motivated to stop people from voting.”

Republicans say their bill protects election integrity without depriving voters of their rights. Parts are similar to GOP-sponsored initiatives in other states.

“There are those out there that want to demagogue the issue,” says Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican and a chief architect of the measure. “We think of it as a bill that will improve the overall election process, making it easier for the voter … (and) improve the integrity of the system.”

Like abortion, criminal justice and unemployment benefits, the elections bill was one of the session’s most contentious. And like the others, it passed along party lines. No Republican voted against the final version. No Democrat voted for it.

Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, calls it “the most ambitious effort to suppress the voting of those likely to vote against the party in power in the country.” One liberal pundit said the bill “reads like a parody written for Stephen Colbert’s show.”

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has called on McCrory to veto the bill.

“North Carolina for years has taken steps to encourage people to exercise their fundamental right to register and vote,” he said. “And this law makes registering and voting more difficult for many people.”

But Cooper, as the state’s chief lawyer, could find his office in the position of defending the bill in court.

Legal challenges

The Advancement Project has represented groups challenging voter ID laws in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Laws in both states are on hold.

Attorney Hair says her group is working with the NAACP on a possible lawsuit in North Carolina. “Our preliminary analysis is that this bill is full of legal holes and that a fair court would strike it down virtually in its entirety,” she says.

Anita Earls, executive director of the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice, says her group believes the law is unconstitutional and would disproportionately hurt African-American voters.

According to state election officials, nearly 319,000 North Carolina voters – more than 40,000 in Mecklenburg County – lack a state-issued ID. Blacks make up 23 percent of voters and 34 percent of those without an ID.

The N.C. legislation came up last week at a White House meeting that brought civil rights activists together with President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder. Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Law this summer, Holder has pledged to block new state laws his department sees as discriminatory.

“All of a sudden it appears that Mr. Holder and the Justice Department are trying to find another way of taking honesty and integrity out of the voting system,” says GOP Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews, a chief author of the N.C. bill. “But that’s up to the courts to decide. …We believe this law will withstand any legal challenge.”

Behind the changes

Rucho says the bill is not designed to keep people from voting. He and other Republicans say it standardizes rules throughout the state, makes it easier for local elections officials, and gives voters more options.

Though it cuts the early voting period from 17 days to 10, it requires county elections officials to maintain the same total of early voting hours they have had in recent elections. In 2016, for example, they would have the same number of hours as they did in 2012.

That could mean expanding the hours polling sites are open, adding more voting machines or both. “It actually opens up more opportunities for voting in terms of the number of machines and sites,” he says. “There is no advantage of having 17 days. You can have 10 days before the election and accomplish all you want to accomplish.”

Lewis, the House member most involved in the legislation, says some provisions were in response to changes made by Democrats over the past decade, including same-day registration, which he argues complicate the process for local elections officials. “If our motives were partisan, … they were to fix partisan actions (Democrats) had taken,” he says.

Though Democrats have benefited from practices such as early voting, Rucho disputes those who argue that Republicans drew the bill for partisan advantage.

“How can we be doing that when everybody is living by the same rules?” he says. “There aren’t any special rules for Republicans and antagonistic rules for Democrats. I can’t understand how they can make that statement.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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