A hot-tempered political struggle over voting rights and election control is developing in North Carolina, as Democrats aim to recapture a presidential battleground and Republicans seek to regain the governorship.
Just as Georgia, Florida and Texas have attracted a surge of national attention and political money as Republicans moved to limit voting in the heated months following the 2020 election, North Carolina has been primed for riots since before page on almost every lever of the electoral apparatus.
In the Republican-led legislature, the State House is considering two Senate-approved bills that would drastically change the way elections are conducted, adding voting restrictions and effectively neutering the state board of elections, which is now controlled by the Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat. And in a looming redistricting showdown, the recently conservative State Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to redraw the state’s congressional and state legislative maps, which will most likely be much friendlier to Republicans.
In North Carolina, every little advantage could matter: the state, despite a long streak of Republican presidential victories interrupted by the triumph of Barack Obama in 2008, has come ever closer. Donald J. Trump was squeezed in 2020 by just over a percentage point and President Biden’s allies they reported who intend to invest in the state in 2024, considering it potentially winnable. Mr. Trump, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and other Republican candidates have already staged events in North Carolina as they vie for their party’s nomination.
« North Carolina is one of the states that has both factors exacerbating it, » said Wendy Weiser, vice president for democracy at the Brennan Center for Justice, referring to Republican attempts to wield more power over voting and elections. « It’s a battleground state and a state that has a history of discrimination in voting. »
He added, « It’s definitely one of the most critical states to worry about. »
Seismic shifts in North Carolina politics paved the way for Republicans to attack. They now have veto-proof legislative majorities after a Democrat defected to the GOP in April, limiting what Mr. Cooper can stop. And conservatives won the state Supreme Court in last year’s election, flipping it from a 4-to-3 Liberal bias to a 5-to-2 Conservative lead.
Behind the scenes, a network of right-wing activists and election deniers led by Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who played a key role in efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election, met with North Carolina lawmakers, pushing its priorities and helping to shape certain arrangements.
Across the country, Republicans continue to seek to tighten voting laws, arguing they are necessary to protect « electoral integrity » and underlining Trump-fueled voter concerns about voter fraud.
So far this year, at least 11 states have passed 13 laws adding those restrictions, according to the Brennan Center. This is a slightly slower clip than 2021, when Republican-led legislatures passed a flurry of voting laws, often in response to campaign lies spread by Trump and his supporters.
North Carolina has a particularly troubled history of voting rights. Under the Voting Rights Act, parts of the state were forced to obtain federal authorization to change voting laws due to their history of racially discriminatory election rules. More recently, in 2016, a federal court struck down a Republican-led voter ID law, saying it had targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Republicans defended the latest measures. State Senator Warren Daniel, a major sponsor of the bill to change voting laws, said on the floor that the measure « increases trust and transparency in our elections. » He added that some changes, including a provision requiring all absentee ballots to be received by the close of polls on Election Day, would bring North Carolina into line with many other states.
Democrats, however, denounced the ballot proposals, with one state senator, Natasha Marcus, going so far as to call them a « jumbo jet of voter suppression. » During the final debate on the bill, she said it “includes a lot of problematic things that will dissuade people from voting, reject ballots and suppress some people’s votes in a way that I think is discriminatory and undemocratic. «
A key provision would effectively eliminate same-day voter registration and replace it with a system where voters would cast provisional votes, then be required to track and verify their identities. Only some forms of identification would be acceptable: Data from the State Board of Elections found that in the four general elections since 2016, more than 36 percent of voters who used same-day registration had provided identification documents that the new law would not allowed.
In 2016, when Republican state lawmakers sought to deregister that same day, a Federal District Court found that it was « indisputable that African-American voters disproportionately used » that method of voting. Black voters, the court found, made up 35 percent of those registered on the same day in the 2012 election, while making up just 22 percent of the electorate.
The new legislation also makes voting by mail more complicated, adding a requirement for verifying voter signatures and a « two-factor » authentication process that would be unique to North Carolina and has left voting experts confused as to how it would work.
As in other states, far more Democrats in North Carolina are now voting by mail, with Trump and his allies instilling widespread Republican distrust of the practice. In the 2022 midterm elections, more than 157,000 people in the state voted by mail. Forty-five percent were Democrats and 35 percent were independents.
When Republican lawmakers wrote the legislation, they received outside help.
Three GOP lawmakers, including Mr. Daniel, met in May with Ms. Mitchell, Trump’s allied lawyer, and Jim Womack, a leader of the North Carolina Election Integrity Teams. That organization is part of a nationwide network of right-wing campaigners coordinated in part by Ms. Mitchell, whom she declined to comment.
According to a video in which Mr. Womack summarized the meeting, the two activists pressed lawmakers on their long list of changes to election laws, including measures on same-day registration, absentee ballots and electoral roll maintenance. The video was obtained by Documented, a liberal investigative group, and shared with The New York Times.
“Same day registration, we all agreed, violent agreement, that same day registration is now going to be a tentative ballot,” Womack said in video of the meeting. « So if you go register on the same day, it will give you at least some time, maybe 7 to 10 days, to have a chance to research and challenge that voter under the law instead of where it should be now, where there that’s less than 24 hours of opportunity to do that.
Mr Daniel declined to answer questions about the roles played by Ms Mitchell and Mr Womack in drafting the bills.
A 2017 law aimed at restructuring the state electoral board was overturned by the state supreme court. Now that the court is more conservative, Republicans have resurrected the effort.
Currently, Mr. Cooper appoints all five board members, but only three can be Democrats. Under the Republican proposal, the board would have eight members, all appointed by state legislators: four by Democratic leaders and four by Republican leaders.
State Senator Paul Newton, the bill’s Republican sponsor, introduced it as a measure « intended to take full advantage of election administration. »
The bill would almost certainly cause a deadlock on many major election issues, a prospect that has alarmed election officials and democracy experts.
The current election council, after reports of harassment of election officials in 2022, stepped in with rules restricting access for poll watchers, a move that angered Conservatives.
And there’s a big unknown: What if the new electoral board were in a deadlock on certifying an election?
This possibility is not addressed in the bill. Phil Berger, the Republican leader of the State Senate, he told The News and Observer that any such deadlock would likely send the matter to the courts, where decisions could depend on the partisan inclination of the judge or court in question.
« That’s a clue right there, » said Robyn Sanders, a consultant at the Brennan Center. « It seems pretty clear to me that it was deliberately designed so that there were those kinds of situations. »