Gov. Pat McCrory has said he’ll soon dispose of the 30 or so bills remaining on his desk following the General Assembly’s July 26 adjournment. He can either sign them into law, let them become law without his signature or veto them. Will the Republican governor take a hint from Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper and veto the bill making broad changes in state election laws, including a requirement for voters to show photo IDs? Not likely – but North Carolina’s civic climate would be improved if he did.
House Bill 589 was approved by the Republican-controlled House and Senate amid the final push to finish this year’s session. The votes were strictly along party lines – Republicans in favor, Democrats opposed. Sponsors said the bill was intended to combat voter fraud, make voting rules and practices more consistent across the state’s 100 counties and enhance public confidence in elections.
Those sound like worthy goals, even though North Carolina has no known, significant problem with voter fraud. But what the sponsors failed to acknowledge is that many of the bill’s provisions seem geared to hold down turnout among voters who have tended to favor Democrats – elderly folks who may not have driver’s licenses, the working poor, African-Americans, Latinos.
The new ID rule, shorter early voting periods and several other features will make voting less convenient – countering a successful effort over the past few years to increase voter participation and thus to make North Carolina’s elections more fully reflective of the public will.
Roy Cooper, state attorney general since 2001, highlighted some of those issues in a July 26 letter to McCrory urging a veto of H.B. 589.
“For years, North Carolina has taken steps that encourage people to vote while maintaining the integrity of the system,” he wrote. “Working people and businesses have been grateful for the expanded opportunities to vote early and on weekends which would now be severely restricted. Young people who have been excited about their first opportunity to participate in democracy have appreciated the ability to pre-register so that they are ready to vote at age 18. This law would stop that.”
Cooper continued, “With frequent redistricting and our more mobile population, people sometimes show up at the wrong precinct on Election Day. This law would prevent them from casting a provisional ballot, making it much more difficult for them to vote. Name and address checks have been successful at preventing people from impersonating other voters rendering the voter ID requirement of this law unnecessary, expensive and burdensome.” The A.G. added that he was objecting on the basis of public policy, not legalities – although it’s expected that if McCrory signs the bill as he has signaled he will, legal challenges will follow.
Political groups long have tried to advance their fortunes by shaping access to the ballot box. The rise of white supremacism in North Carolina at the end of the 19th century, pushed by that era’s Democrats, featured Jim Crow laws to keep Republican-leaning blacks from voting.
The great mid-20th century civil rights movement was grounded in expansion of voting rights as well as the struggle to end legal segregation. So the tide of history — a welcome tide in its affirmation of rights guaranteed in the Constitution – has run in the direction of encouraging more people to vote, not making it more difficult. When new rules would cut more deeply into Democratic vote totals than Republican, it’s not hard to see partisan motives at work among the rules’ Republican backers.
Following the money
Cooper didn’t spell them out, but the bill he criticized is loaded with other provisions that look like efforts to secure advantages for well-funded candidates. There is a common denominator to these changes: They loosen controls on the influence that wealthy contributors can have on campaigns. Since the party in power – the GOP – has an inherent fundraising advantage, a process in which fundraising becomes more important works in the GOP’s favor.
The bill obscures the source of some political contributions to the kind of independent groups that have come to play an increasing role in boosting their favored candidates. That would make it easier for the groups to raise money and make it harder to determine which interests were being advanced.
Candidates also would be allowed to raise more money from individuals. And they would no longer have to appear in their ads to declare, in the now-familiar language, that they had “approved this message.” The upshot: More money, less disclosure, less accountability.
The bill trims early voting from 17 to 10 days, albeit with a proviso successfully pushed by Democrats that polls would have to be kept open for the same number of hours. Early voting has proven so popular that in 2012, 56 percent of ballots were cast before Election Day.
A chance to vote early and when it fits someone’s personal schedule appeals especially to working people and those with demanding day-to-day commitments, and the pattern has been for African-Americans (a majority of whom tend to vote Democratic) to use that option widely. It’s clear what kind of votes would be more likely to decline if early voting days, along with same-day voter registration, are reduced.
Even if McCrory thinks a photo ID law and a shortened early-voting period would do some good beyond helping his party, there’s another powerful public-interest reason for him to veto H.B. 589. It scraps North Carolina’s successful program whereby candidates for the state’s two highest courts can receive public funds to defray most of their campaign costs, rather than having to raise them from private contributors.
Those contributors often are people with business before the courts or an interest in particular outcomes. In other words, they want to stack the judicial deck.
A popular option
The program is voluntary, but since it took effect in 2004, most candidates for the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals have used it. To qualify for public funds, candidates must demonstrate a broad level of support by collecting donations ranging from $10 to $500 from at least 350 voters. Then, they must agree to curtail further private fundraising.
The election reform advocacy group Democracy N.C. reports that 55 of 69 candidates for contested seats on the two courts between 2004 and 2012—Republicans and Democrats, winners and losers — took advantage of the program.
“Before the program began,” the group says, “judicial candidates in the 2001 general election received 73 percent of their non-family campaign money from attorneys, special-interest PACs or political committees. This figure dropped to 14 percent for the 12 candidates who qualified to receive public support in the 2004 general election and has remained low since then.” Judges, the N.C. Bar Association and former governors of both parties have urged that the program be continued to “protect the integrity of the judicial system,” as they put it in a letter to top legislators.
It’s true that court rulings have made it easier for “independent” groups to spend large sums to influence judicial campaigns, raising anew the specter of justice for sale to the highest bidder. McCrory surely understands why that trend runs contrary to the public interest.
The governor has yet to veto a bill, and there are enough Republicans in each legislative chamber to override any veto if party discipline holds. Still, he could veto H.B. 589 to make a principled point about the importance of insulating judges from the pressures and potential obligations of campaign fundraising.
— Steve Ford, Volunteer Program Associate