Haywood and Jackson County chapters held public forums last week to help prepare members of the public to speak at a N.C. State Board of Elections public hearing June 11 in Sylva. The hearing will be one of many held across the state to gather feedback on the state board’s proposed rules to implement the voter identification requirements outlined in the new laws.
The Haywood County meeting included comments from Democracy North Carolina’s executive director Bob Hall and Darlene Azarmi, the organization’s western region field officer.
Katherine Bartel, Haywood County NAACP chapter assistant secretary, said the meeting was a way to inform people about the changes to voter laws and to prepare members to register people for upcoming elections. She said their focus at the public hearings would be discussing how the new law is implemented.
“It has to follow the letter of the law, but there is a certain amount of wiggle room in terms of the details,” she said. “We’ll be advocating for as much flexibility as possible so that more voters have a chance to exercise their right to vote.”
Enrique Gomez, Jackson County NAACP chapter president, was optimistic that advocating for the more lenient rules at the hearing could have a real impact on how the law is administered and future elections.
“We can actually put our influence, our verbal presence, in these hearings to make sure that they understand where we stand with these issues,” he said.
It was also emphasized that the hearings were only to discuss the specific wording of the proposed rules — not the constitutionality of the law itself.
“This is an opportunity to comment on the language of the proposal,” NAACP member Kirk Stephens said. “This is not a time to debate the law. They’re not going to listen to that.”
People who wish to speak at the June 11 hearing will have three minutes to make their comments. Azarmi encouraged people to fill that time with personal stories rather than statistics.
“A lot of times they don’t get those heartfelt stories from folks that actually can fall into the current of emotion or whatever it is that hopefully evokes the ability to have some sort of change or flexibility in terms of human perspective on these issues,” she said.
She said the public hearing would focus on the rules for determining what counts as reasonable resemblance between people and their forms of identification — a process that relies on individual perspective.
“That is one thing that is coming back to human perception and emotion, and that is what we can tap into when we have these public hearings,” she said. “These are platforms for us to come to the table and speak.”
Many members who presented at the meeting noted that the rules determining what counts as a reasonable resemblance are not as restrictive as they had feared. Changes in attributes such as weight, hair features, complexion and clothing will not invalidate a person’s identification.
Further, three election officials at the polls must declare a person does not match his or her identification for that person not to be allowed to vote. The decision must be unanimous, Gomez said.
However, Gomez called the provisional ballot the most concerning piece of the proposed rules. With a provisional ballot, people lacking the necessary photo identification can still vote, but their votes will only count if they return and present an accepted form of photo identification.
Gomez said the rules surrounding this issue need clarification and that turning people away the first time they come to vote may discourage them from trying again.
“How many of us are actually going to go out and volunteer to, again, to vote or to present ID to make sure that your vote is actually counted?” he asked.
Many members still expressed concern that the law itself is problematic. Lorna Barnett said she was afraid talking about the hearings put too much focus on the rules behind the law rather than why the law was passed in the first place.
“It’s just a concern that we have been totally shifted from saying, ‘We don’t need this law at all,’ to focusing on the rules, and, you know, we’re just digging right in and going along with it,” she said.
Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, called the law a “voter suppression package.” He has not given up fighting its impact. He is one of the primary sponsors for House Bill 755, which would restore preregistration for high school students and encourage civic education in social studies classrooms.
He also expressed support for House Bill 240, which would allow students at North Carolina colleges and universities to use their campus photo identification cards as a valid form of identification at the polls, and House Bill 239, which would restore the number of early voting days.
Queen said it was in the public interest for young people to have a chance to be engaged citizens.
“The earlier a citizen can vote, the stronger a citizen they will be,” he said. “We’ve learned that, and it’s just a very backward step.”
Queen’s bill was introduced this session, and he said committee chairs still must agree to hear it.
“It’s basically being held hostage by the Republican leadership,” he said. “They only move the bills they want to move.”
In an interview, Barnett dismissed many lawmakers’ argument that requiring voters to show identification is necessary to prevent voter fraud in North Carolina.
“(Voter fraud) is not a problem, so we did not need a law except to discourage people to vote,” she said.
Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said in a follow-up interview that those who think voter fraud is not a problem are misinformed. He said it was a problem in the last election.
“I want everybody that’s qualified to vote for their votes to be counted,” he said. “And I don’t want anybody’s vote to be diluted by a fraudulent vote.”
The N.C. Board of Elections reported in 2014 that it had discovered 765 voters had cast more than one ballot during the 2012 election.
Reducing the electorate
Penny Smith, chairwoman of the Jackson County NAACP chapter’s education committee, said the law reduces the number of people who have access to easy voting. She noted how changes in voting laws have typically been enacted with the goal of increasing participation in the democratic process.
Many have argued this law does the opposite. The law eliminated Citizen Awareness Month, which worked toward the goal of registering voters and engaging them in the electoral process.
Bartel said research has shown laws like these typically have a greater impact on people with fewer resources. She said cutting early voting days especially hurts them and that many of them often have a harder time getting what would be counted as a valid form of identification.
“They may have a hard time getting to the DMV or getting a ride to the polls,” she said.
In a follow-up interview, Hall said there were 2,334 people in North Carolina who cast provisional ballots that were never counted in the 2014 election. Some of these people either had registration problems they could have fixed had same-day registration been allowed while others went to the wrong precinct, he said.
“That’s the kind of situation where they just didn’t have time, and they thought it would work,” Hall said. “They cast a provisional ballot, and lo and behold it didn’t work.”
According to a Democracy NC briefing provided by Hall, people ages 18 to 25 made up 33 percent of the voters who used same-day registration in the 2012 election while black voters made up another 34 percent. It also shows that 70 percent of black voters used early voting in 2012 as compared to 52 percent of white voters.
Although Smith acknowledged that the suggested rules governing the voter identification law are more moderate than many originally expected, she warned those present to be wary of “rules that make such participation more selective and hence more challenging.”
“We are perhaps now in a moment of one step backwards in our two-steps-forward-one-step-backward dance to the future of the United States,” she said.
Ongoing legal questions
Azarmi also explained the court cases involving voting rights in North Carolina.
In the first case she discussed, four groups of lawyers will participate and represent the U.S. Justice Department, the NAACP, various voting rights groups and young voters, to say the law is unconstitutional and in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
At the state level, the plaintiffs are arguing the identification requirement violates the North Carolina constitution by implementing what they believe is an illegal qualification to voting.
At the federal level, the plaintiffs take issue with the law more broadly, citing the identification requirement, the repeal of early voting same-day registration, the repeal of out-of-precinct voting on Election Day, the repeal of preregistration for teenagers and the shortened time for early voting as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Trials for the different claims will begin in state and federal courts in July. Azarmi said appeals would likely follow after the verdict.
The other court case disputes the redistricting in 2011 following the census. The plaintiffs — Democracy NC, the NAACP, the League of Women Voters and individual voters — claim the way Republican lawmakers drew the new districts violated the Voting Rights Act and the North Carolina and United States constitutions.
The plaintiffs argue the new districts create unequal classes of voters, as some precincts are split by the new lines while others remain whole. They also say the new districts reduce black voters’ influence by placing them into a smaller number of districts.
The North Carolina Supreme Court has already ruled against the plaintiffs, but the United States Supreme Court asked it to reconsider. The case will be heard again on Aug. 31.
With both cases, Azarmi said it is difficult to tell whether or not the case decisions will impact the 2016 elections.
‘Finding the fatal flaws’
Stephens tried to alleviate some concerns that these hearings are more for show rather than a platform to hear the public’s voices. He said the State Board of Elections has worked hard to come up with the rules. He did note, however, that any substantive changes to the drafted rules would require a new phase of hearings — something he suspected the board would not want to do.
“Maybe we don’t like the law, but it’s a good interpretation,” he said. “And I do think they are, from what I hear, I do think they are interested in finding the fatal flaws if they’ve missed anything.”
Everyone who presented at the meeting encouraged those present to talk to other people about the new law and what it will mean, as many people may still be unaware of how their time at the polls will change.
“I just get the idea that people don’t really understand what’s in this law,” NAACP member Marcia Woosley said. “It sounds like a large segment of the population is going to be left out.”
State board of elections proposes voter ID rules
Want your voice to be heard?
• Attend the N.C. State Board of Elections regional public hearing from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, June 11, in the conference room of the Jackson County Board of Elections Office at 878 Skyland Dr., Suite 1 in Sylva.