By Michael Wines – The New York Times.
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — When a federal appeals court overturned much of North Carolina’s sweeping 2013 election law last month, saying it had been deliberately intended to discourage African-Americans from voting, something else was tossed out as well: the ground rules for this year’s elections in a critical swing state. In each of the state’s 100 counties, local elections boards scheduled new hearings and last week filed the last of their new election rules with the state.
Now, critics are accusing some of the boards, all of which are controlled by Republicans, of staging an end run around a court ruling they are supposed to carry out. Like the law that was struck down, say voting rights advocacy groups and some Democrats who are contesting the rewritten election plans, many election plans have been intentionally written to suppress the black vote.
“It is equal to voter suppression in its worst way,” said Courtney Patterson, the sole Democrat on the Lenoir County elections board.
He was referring to a proposal by the board’s two Republicans to allow 106.5 hours of early voting before the Nov. 8 election — less than a quarter of the time allowed in the 2012 presidential election — and to limit early balloting to a single polling place in the county seat of a largely rural eastern North Carolina county that sprawls over 403 square miles.
In a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans by better than two to one, and four in 10 voters are black, the election plan limits voting to a single weekend day, and on weekdays demands that residents, including those who are poor and do not own cars, make long trips to cast a ballot.
Republicans, who wrote and passed the 2013 law and control all 100 county election boards, deny the rules reflect anything inappropriate.
“Purely bogus,” Robin C. Hayes, the state Republican Party chairman, said Tuesday in an interview. “In fact, we’re working hard to increase the vote from every region and from every interest group. And by the way, no great surprise: We want them to vote Republican.”
Politics is a contact sport, he added, and no one should be surprised that Republicans and Democrats alike try to stage elections on terms that favor their party.
Mr. Patterson said he was puzzled by the way the rules had been written. “These are two very fine people that I’ve worked with on this board,” he said. “It’s just sad to say that I don’t know whatever is causing them to act this way.”
Actually, the roots of North Carolina’s latest conflict over voting seem apparent. Republicans and Democrats here are in hand-to-hand combat this election year as seldom before. Contests for president and United States senator are neck and neck, and the Republican governor, Pat McCrory, is in a tough bid for re-election. Two congressional races are unfolding in districts whose boundaries were ordered redrawn this year after a federal court ruled that they had been gerrymandered to dilute black voters’ influence.
While Republicans scoff at the notion that they have sought to suppress an overwhelmingly Democratic black vote, they make no apologies for pursuing every legal opportunity that exists to win elections.
“Does anybody think that Democrats did not select early voting sites and set hours to advantage their voters over Republicans?” Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of North Carolina’s Republican Party, wrote this week, referring to the days when the statehouse was in Democratic hands. “We are just attempting to rebalance the scales.”
That statement was in a letter to The Raleigh News & Observer, which stirred a small sensation this month after it acquired an email that Mr. Woodhouse had sent to Republican election-board members and other party stalwarts after the court ruling that invalidated the 2013 law.
In it, he stated that Republican election officials “can and should make party-line changes” to the rules governing early voting periods, and urged them to oppose other measures — like Sunday hours for early voting sites, and polling places on college campuses — that are commonly said to aid Democratic turnout.
Mr. Woodhouse did not respond to requests for an interview. Officials of some advocacy groups say, however, that the appeals court decision and the general ferocity of this year’s election have turned the arcane process of choosing election sites and polling hours into a partisan battleground.
“It has become more politicized, unfortunately,” Bob Hall, the executive director of the election-rights group Democracy North Carolina, said in an interview. “With the Dallas Woodhouse memo, that kind of mentality has made the Democrats say, ‘O.K. — we’ll fight hard, too.’”
According to the state Board of Elections, which certifies local rules, 66 of the 100 county boards — which each have two Republicans and one Democrat — have submitted bipartisan proposals for the November vote. But the remaining 34 boards could not agree on a plan; frequently, Republican and Democratic members offered rival plans to the state.
Not all the splits are deep or glaringly partisan, but many are. “We’re in the neighborhood of 10, up to 20 that are really problematic,” said Allison Riggs, a lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham, N.C.
The State Board of Elections — also in Republican hands — is empowered to impose its own plan when local boards are split. Ms. Riggs, who helped argue the 2013 case, said her group might challenge some election plans if it deemed the state’s solutions unfair to black voters.
What constitutes unfairness, however, is no simple question.
The federal appeals court ruling against the 2013 election law broadly said that given North Carolina’s history of racial discrimination in voting, Republicans could not roll back voting rules that benefited African-Americans without compelling reasons.
Among many other changes, for example, the 2013 law cut the state’s early voting period to 10 days from 17 and eliminated a Sunday balloting day. Republican legislators argued that those reductions were innocuous because the law also required counties to offer at least as many hours of early voting as in past years — either by adding polling places or keeping the existing ones open longer.
The appeals court disputed that, noting that a disproportionate number of African-Americans voted early — especially during the first week of balloting that the law abolished — and that voting after Sunday church services had become an African-American tradition. Reducing the early voting period not only struck directly at black voting habits, the court said, but also increased the prospect of long lines and polling delays during the compressed early voting period and on Election Day.
But when the appeals court ordered counties to restore the early voting period to 17 days, it left decisions about the number of polling places and their operating hours up to local election boards. The result is that some of the newly proposed election plans explicitly cut voting hours below previous levels, and outlaw Sunday voting altogether.
Democrats and voting-rights advocates call the cuts a conspiracy to depress black turnout. But Republican election officials deny that, citing religious objections to Sunday voting, the need to give election workers a day off and, in some cases, difficulty in making late changes in voting schedules, when schools, community centers and other polling places had already made plans.
In urban Mecklenburg County, where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly two to one, the number of registered voters has risen 5 percent since 2012. But the majority Republican plan envisions a nearly 9 percent reduction from 2012 in early voting hours, and would limit balloting to six sites during the first week of the 17-day period, then to 22 sites for the remaining 10 days.
And in heavily Democratic Cumberland County, which includes Fayetteville, the elections board this summer unanimously adopted a 10-day early voting plan that included Sunday voting. After the appeals court ruling, the Republican-backed plan omitted Sunday voting. Neither that plan nor a competing Democratic proposal has been adopted.