Recently, during the League of Women Voters' monthly meeting at Tartan Hall, Chris Brook gave an overview of what new voting laws could mean to North Carolinians.
Last year, the N.C. legislature passed bills that would establish new voting regulations and procedures that will go into effect in 2016. Brook serves as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who will be representing the league in a lawsuit opposing some of the provisions in the new voting law.
“A lot of the headlines that we see refer to the voter I.D. portion of the law,” said Brooks. “But that is a small portion. It is important that we understand the other changes that come with the law.”
The league has publicly opposed the law since it gained national attention last spring. Brook began his presentation by giving an overview of the history spanning back to the first bill, House Bill 589.
“The first bill was 14 pages long and most of that had to do with the voter ID portion of the law, but then the Supreme Court struck down the requirement for some states to prove that voting laws were not restricting portions of the population based on race,” said Brook. “So after that, the N.C. Senate took the bill and since it no longer had to be pre-cleared by anyone, this 14-page bill expanded to 58 pages. There was no debate. In less than 48 hours, it passed both the house and the senate.”
He discussed provisions of the law that were not being sued over like a portion that eliminates pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds – an act that he says “allows kids the opportunity to get involved in self government.”
There is also a new provision that will allow poll observers to monitor polling places that are not within their own precinct.
“First off, having poll observers is an outdated practice anyway. They are there to recognize people and make sure they are from the right area, but what good is somebody that's not from the area? How are they going to know if somebody is supposed to be where they are? Our concern is that you're going to have these rogue observers challenging voters at random,” Brook told the room of onlookers.
He then moved on to the issues that will be contested in court. The first of note was the restriction on out of precinct ballots. In the past, if a person went to the wrong place to vote, they were still allowed to cast a provisional ballot where their choices for statewide and countywide offices would count, although their choices would be monitored for local races in case they were not supposed to vote in a particular race since they went to the wrong polling place. Under the new law, none of the voter's choices would count.
“In 2008 and 2012, 93 percent of the out of precinct ballots that were cast were by African Americans,” Brook said.
Another thing he talked about was the shortening of the early voting period from 17 days to 10 days. The law does require counties to “offer the same number of early voting hours in presidential elections as were available in 2012 and an equal number of early voting hours in midterm elections as were in offered in 2010.”
Aside from squeezing those hours into last days and thus possibly creating odd times to vote, Brook says the ACLU is suing because they believe the law restricts African Americans as well as whites.
“70 percent of African Americans voted early in 2008 and 2012. Not only that, 51 percent of whites did too. Who exactly wanted this? Nobody is going to benefit from these changes. Why make these restrictions when nobody is asking for them,” he said.
Florida made national headlines in 2012 for its extremely long voting lines, a result of restricting early voting according to Brook.
“201,000 voters gave up. That's what happens when you have to stand in line all day. Not everybody has a job that allows them to take off work to go vote. A lot of us enjoy that privilege, but we can't forget that not everyone does. After 2012, Florida restored those early voting days.”
Brook also discussed the voter ID aspect of the bill despite using most of his time to focus on the other provisions of the law. The current law rarely requires voters to show identification. A voter who registers by mail who did not provide a driver's license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number on the application, does have to prove their identity and can often do so by providing a pay stub or utility bill that matches their name and address.
In 2016, voters will be required to have acceptable identification such as:
"The voting booth is the one place where we are all equal," he said.
While there are lawsuits in process to challenge certain aspects of the new law, it could be years before a resolution is found.
The next league meeting will take place at Tartan Hall on April 10 at noon. Guests will be county commissioner candidates.