As Americans soldier on amidst their ill-fated 2020 stress test, there is inspiration to be found. Our democracy’s guardrails as enshrined in the Constitution may have been battered by a self-aggrandizing president contemptuous of his oath of office. But voters mustered the strength even while a pandemic raged to give that president the hook.
In that sense last month’s election was a national victory. The message denying Donald Trump a second term came through loud and clear even if he apparently doesn’t intend to accept it. The president can take whatever satisfaction he will in having collected a record number of votes in a losing cause. The fact remains that Joe Biden also set a record – and he’s en route to the White House.
In his desperation, Trump has badgered friendly state legislators to skew the all-important Electoral College vote in his favor. What he has found is that most of those legislators, together with the vast majority of state and local election officials, have chosen to do their duty under the law instead of enabling a president wallowing in unhinged allegations of election fraud to retain power via a virtual coup.
With vaccines against COVID-19 now in the pipeline, even if most of us will have to wait months before getting our shots, there’s reason to hope that our next election cycle won’t be shadowed by a deadly virus. But the challenges of 2020 have put renewed emphasis on the mechanics of voting – how to ensure that every eligible citizen has a fair chance to cast a ballot, both safely and without undue hassle.
Months ago, Trump aligned himself with forces in his Republican Party whose basic premise when it comes to voter participation seems to be that the fewer, the better.
The president railed against broadened vote-by-mail options because of their alleged susceptibility to cheating. His appointee, Greensboro mega-donor Louis DeJoy, tried to bollix up the Postal Service. The real agenda was to limit the number of votes cast by people who took the coronavirus seriously – unlike Trump and his mask-scorning followers. Perhaps cast even by (gasp!) Democrats.
North Carolinians weren’t deterred. They turned in a million absentee votes, many if not most sent through the mail. They surged to early-voting sites. An election that essentially stretched on for two months – from when absentee ballots first were distributed until Election Day on Nov. 3 – saw overall turnout exceed 75 percent, with early in-person voters outnumbering those on Election Day by a whopping factor of four.
For all that, the outcome here had a decidedly pro-Republican flavor, with Trump edging Biden and the General Assembly remaining firmly under GOP control. Gov. Roy Cooper’s re-election win was one of the Democrats’ few bright spots.
The closest high-profile race, for chief justice of the Supreme Court, at last report had Republican Associate Justice Paul Newby ahead by some 400 votes over Democratic incumbent chief Cheri Beasley, with recounts and challenges in progress. That race especially has highlighted the tension over who gets to vote and how those votes are counted – ironically enough, since the person who wins will loom large in helping decide whether the state’s election laws are constitutional and are fairly applied.
It would hardly be surprising if the legislature, during its session convening in January, looked back at election changes made in response to the pandemic to see how they played out – partisan implications included.
For example, absentee voting was simplified by reducing the requirement for two witnesses or a notary to a single witness as ballots are being marked. That allowed many more people to vote while staying within their virus-protection “bubble.”
But the change is supposed to be in effect only during 2020. Might Republicans who think mail-in voting works against them insist on reinstating the stricter rule? That toothpaste might be hard to put back in the tube – and voting rights advocates naturally would argue that it shouldn’t be.
Meanwhile, one of North Carolina’s thorniest election issues continues to be hashed over in the courts. The question is whether the legislature’s attempt to require voters to show an official photo ID will survive arguments that the rule is racially discriminatory, since it’s been shown that African-Americans disproportionately lack the kinds of identification – driver’s licenses in particular – meeting the ID requirement.
Further, challengers make a good case when they say the rule attempts to fix something that isn’t broken, given that voter fraud of the type the rule might prevent is extremely rare. That tends to undercut claims that an ID rule, even though it burdens some voters, serves a valid purpose. And the subtext all along has been that voters most likely to lack a necessary ID – not only Black people but the poor, elderly and young in general – on the whole tend to favor Democratic candidates.
After previous voter ID efforts were blocked by federal judges, the legislature managed to secure a state constitutional amendment stating, “Voters offering to vote in person shall present photographic identification before voting.” Details of how the requirement would work were not spelled out until after the amendment was approved by referendum in the November 2018 elections.
Mindful of those previous court setbacks, lawmakers broadened the kinds of acceptable IDs, allowed people unable to obtain a photo ID to vote if otherwise qualified, and required counties to issue free IDs that voters could use.
To the challengers, however, voter ID still looked like a page from what federal courts had described as Republican legislators’ voter suppression playbook. Lawsuits at both federal and state levels yielded injunctions putting voter ID on hold during this year’s elections.
The latest development came in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel on Dec. 2 lifted the injunction that had been set in federal district court a year ago. The panel cited what it said should be a presumption that legislators had acted in good faith in trying to formulate an ID requirement that wasn’t discriminatory.
To which the challengers, as they continue their appeals, can be expected to say: Well, perhaps. But why allow a requirement that makes some voters collateral damage in hyperpartisan efforts to shape the electorate, and that slows the voting process while bringing no significant gains in election security?
As to the state constitutional amendment, there’s a parallel argument – voiced by Gov. Cooper, among others – that it should be stricken as the illegitimate fruit of a legislature whose members were chosen via racially gerrymandered districts. And that’s a question that could wind up before the state Supreme Court, whoever the chief justice turns out to be.
Even as our president was hoping to use political muscle to overturn a decisive and incontrovertible defeat in the Electoral College – an unprecedented breach of democratic norms prevalent throughout U.S. history – North Carolinians for their part can take pride in having carried out an election that succeeded in the face of epic adversity.
It succeeded in engaging record numbers of voters despite the risks of coronavirus infection for those venturing into crowds of strangers. Reports of any virus cases linked to election activity seem minimal. There were no conspicuous foul-ups at the polls or in the counting process. All this testifies to the careful planning and hard work – and yes, the courage – of election officials at all levels.
The N.C. Council of Churches supports wide access to the ballot box as a way for every qualified citizen to have a say in the public arena. From the Council’s perspective, being able to vote without needless hindrance is a right that lies at the core of a well-functioning democracy, and it amounts to an affirmation of individual worth and dignity in keeping with Scriptural ideals.
Those with a record of attempting to skew voting rules to serve their own interests while fellow citizens are marginalized deserve no presumption of good faith. In fact, they should forfeit it.