Lawmakers, BOE director testify on new election practices

Lawmakers, BOE director testify on new election practices
July 30
00:00 2015

In above photo: NC Rep. Henry “Mickey” Michaux (left) and NC Sen. Josh Stein (right)

Lawmakers and the N.C. State Board of Elections director were among those testifying on potential disenfranchisement under North Carolina’s controversial voting law in federal court.

The plaintiffs challenging House Bill 589, an election reform bill, rested their case last Friday after calling 40 witnesses to the stand, most of whom were voters affected by the law or experts on election law.

The plaintiffs, which include the N.C. NAACP, League of Women Voters and the U.S. Attorney General, contend that the law suppresses young and minority voters.

The state made its case starting Friday and was expected to rest later this week, after The Chronicle’s press time, with a verdict to come after the judge has reviewed the evidence.

Two Democratic lawmakers, N.C. Sen. Josh Stein, a member of the Senate Rules committee, and N.C. Rep. Henry “Mickey” Michaux, a member of the House Elections committee, testified on the legislative process for the bill.

Stein said it was originally a 16-page voter ID bill that passed the House and sat for months in the House Rules committee.

Then the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the pre-clearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act.

It was less than a month later that Stein received a new 57-page version of the bill that would radically change voting in North Carolina.

He said he had little time to research it, but was still able to present statistics that showed African-Americans used early voting at a higher rate and would be disproportionately affected by the voter ID requirement.

The bill passed both the House and Senate in only two days, in a process that Stein said was unusual.

Michaux, North Carolina’s longest serving legislator, said that he felt the intention of the bill was to suppress the vote, particularly among African-Americans.

He said evidence of the negative results of the bill toward black voters was clearly presented to his Republican colleagues.

Every Republican present voted for it, while all Democrats voted against it.

“The whole Democratic caucus, after the bill passed, stood up and bowed their heads in a moment of silence,” said Michaux, who was the first black U.S. Attorney in the South since Reconstruction before becoming a lawmaker.

On cross-examination by state attorneys, both lawmakers said that while the process was unusual, no legislative rules were broken.

No Republicans testified about the legislative process because they’ve invoked legislative privilege to prevent themselves from taking the stand or releasing emails about the bill.

The plaintiffs also called N.C. State Board of Elections Director Kim Starch to the stand.

She testified that more than 96,000 people might not have been able to vote if early voting in 2012 had been shortened from 17 days to the current 10 day period under the new law.

She was also asked about the lack of evidence of fraud in same-day voter registration, which has been eliminated under the new voting law.

She did have concerns about same-day registration, giving an election mishap in Pembroke as an example.

Pembroke, which has a population of 3,000, had a tight town council election in 2013, with one seat being tied at 300 votes between challenger and incumbent.

Nine young men in town for a basketball program used a lease as proof of residence for same-day registration and voted.

It turned out they didn’t live in town and a lease didn’t qualify as a proper proof of residence, thus their votes were ineligible.

This was among the factors that led Pembroke to redo the election in 2014.

Daniel Donovan, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said the real problem wasn’t the same-day registration, but an election official’s mistake.

Starch admitted that the election official was mistaken in using the lease as part of the registration.

Lorraine Minnite, a Rutgers University political science professor, agreed with that in her testimony and said there was no clear evidence that the basketball players intended to commit voter fraud.

She said that it was a myth that same-day registration is susceptible to fraud and, because the voter is appearing in person with the identification required to register, it’s actually a more secure way to register to vote.

Minnite said voter fraud is almost non-existent in the state.

She said the N.C. State Board of Elections provided legislators with evidence showing just two referrals for voter impersonation from 2000 to 2014, a time period when more than 35 million votes were cast.

She felt restrictions in House Bill 589 actually undermined the election process.

“In a democracy, the integrity question is an access question,” she said. “You have to have both. If some have less access, then the electoral process doesn’t have as much integrity.”

Attorneys for the state refuted those claims by calling expert Janet Thornton to testify that the black turnout was higher in 2014, after the law went into effect, than in 2010.

She also said people registered to vote at a higher rate between 2012 and 2014 than the period between the previous presidential and midterm elections in 2008 and 2010.

Trey Hood, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, concurred with those findings, saying the statistics show that the shortened early voting period didn’t have a negative effect on voter turnout.

Blacks continued to use early voting at a higher rate than whites in the 2014 election.

RealClearPolitics Senior Elections Analyst Sean Trende testified that black voter turnout has been increasing nationally, and that the election laws that each state has doesn’t have a significant effect on black turnout.

The state’s argument is that the voting law is race neutral, hasn’t discouraged voting and that all North Carolinians have had an equal chance to adjust to its changes.

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Todd Luck

Todd Luck

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