As painful as it is to admit, and just as obvious, the right of Americans to vote in the elections by which their political leaders are chosen has emerged only after decades of conflict and struggle — from the time of the nation’s founding when voting generally was a privilege reserved to white male landowners through and beyond the Civil War.
The great civil rights advances of the mid-20th century finally shattered the barriers that had kept many African-Americans from voting despite protections written into the U.S. Constitution a century earlier following slavery’s defeat.
The principle of one person, one vote – so essential to allowing each voter to have an equal say – finally was enshrined by the U.S. Supreme Court. In North Carolina, as in many states, the tide gradually ran in democracy’s favor, with election rules evolving so voting became more convenient while no less honest.
But such progress notwithstanding, the temptation to try to shape the electorate by making it harder for some people to vote or to cast a vote that carries equal weight has posed a constant challenge to democratic ideals.
Election district boundaries have been skewed for partisan advantage, a tactic that in North Carolina seems ripe for further abuse by the General Assembly’s majority Republicans with the support of compliant judges. And leaders among those same Republican legislators now seek to backslide on laws and procedures that have encouraged voter participation – clearly figuring that fewer voters means better chances for their party’s candidates and a tighter grip on the power they themselves wield.
The cover story for their latest initiative hinges on a demonstrable skepticism among Republican voters that elections here and elsewhere are conducted fairly, with results that all can agree to accept.
That, of course, is the theme promoted most vocally by former President Trump in his ongoing attempts to cast doubt on his 2020 loss to Joe Biden, despite his lack of credible evidence that the outcome wasn’t properly decided. With various polls showing Republicans losing trust in the entire voting process, it’s not a stretch to tie that decline to Trump’s unwarranted trashing of confidence in our elections, as echoed by allies and by others simply loathe to contradict him.
But if fading trust in election outcomes is a trend resting on a monumentally flawed, cynical, and self-serving premise, that hasn’t stopped key Republicans from using it to justify wide-ranging efforts to make voting more difficult and in general to gum up the works so that fewer votes get counted.
Their rallying cry is “election integrity” – an Orwellian twist indeed, as it not only promises a fix for something that isn’t broken but does it attacking the very thing, integrity, that it purports to defend. In a democratic system, there’s no integrity in strategies that tend to suppress some people’s ability to vote – and it’s no mystery who the targets of that suppression will be when conservative Republicans are in charge.
So that brings us to the anti-democratic – and anti-Democratic, not so coincidentally – mish-mash known as Senate Bill 747. It’s the latest in a long and ignoble line of voter hindrance measures advanced in recent years by the legislature’s ruling cabal.
Nor will it will be an excuse for sponsors to argue that even if the bill becomes law, it’ll be easier for average folks to vote than it was, say, 40 years ago. Voter-friendly changes put in place since then, such as early voting and no-excuse absentee voting, have broadened the electorate and thus enhanced the integrity – there’s that word again – of the system. There’s no reason to dial back those changes other than Republicans’ political self-interest, since they calculate that having more voters works against them.
S.B. 747’s primary sponsors are Sens. Ralph Hise of Spruce Pine and Warren Daniel of Morganton, as well as Majority Leader Paul Newton of Mount Pleasant. That trio makes up the leadership of the Redistricting and Elections Committee. The bill includes provisions that would complicate mail-in voting, undermine so-called one-stop early voting, and make it harder for election officials to do their work without interference from ill-intentioned partisan observers.
Voting by mail has been a Republican punching bag since Trump – sensing that COVID-averse Democrats would be more likely to choose it during the pandemic – blasted it as unreliable and potentially corrupt. Which, in practice, turned out to be nonsense. Despite an understandable surge in mail-in ballots during the 2020 elections, North Carolina’s process, for example, went smoothly. And heavy Democratic participation didn’t stop Trump from carrying the state.
But the bill now before the Senate would eliminate the three-day, post-election grace period during which ballots mailed on or before the day of an election still would count. They would have to be received by 7:30 p.m. on Election Day. Chances are that some ballots, properly filled out before the election, would be tossed.
Other new requirements for the authorization of signatures and the submission of photo identification (included in a separate voter ID bill) would make voting by mail more cumbersome both for voters and officials in charge of processing. Cumulatively, a voting method that many people have found useful would be saddled with disincentives.
One stop? Not quite
The ability to both register and actually vote during a single trip to a polling place during early voting has been an important tool in helping encourage overall turnout. Critics, however, say that it promotes voting by “low-information” people who can be shepherded to the polls and told whom to support. That’s pretty much the definition of anti-democratic arrogance, since it rests on an obnoxious stereotype applied to people who might not have had all the time in the world to follow politics but who nevertheless have decided to exercise their rights as citizens.
S.B. 747 would consign people who wanted to register and vote in a single visit to a form of election limbo. They still could vote, but the vote would be provisional. It wouldn’t count until the voter’s registration data was confirmed via a process relying on the mail. Or, a voter would have to go to his or her county’s board of elections with required documentation. What had been simple and by all indications largely error-proof would become a complicated hassle – for the bill’s sponsors, mission accomplished.
Elections boards already are facing extreme pressures from Trump-aligned critics who’d like us to believe that any outcome not in their favor must be the result of some conspiracy. Officials have had to deal with burdensome, unnecessary records requests and even in some instances with physical threats.
Now they could be subjected to further unwarranted scrutiny by bad-faith partisan activists taking advantage of new rules for public inspection of absentee ballots and for party-affiliated poll observers. Such interference is hardly intended to help the process run more honestly and smoothly. Instead, it’s meant to turn Trump-style warnings of election mismanagement into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As it happens, the North Carolina legislation largely tracks the agenda of a national group headed by Cleta Mitchell, a North Carolina-based attorney heavily involved in Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election who heads the self-described Election Integrity Network. Perish the thought that she helped write the bill.
No, she probably didn’t sit there with an oil lamp, parchment, and quill pen and actually compose any of the bill’s language. But it turns out that the bill reflects large chunks of her network’s agenda – also championed by the group’s North Carolina affiliate. On the whole, that agenda is consistent with Trump’s efforts to undermine confidence in our elections and to jerk a knot in voter participation.
The N.C. Council of Churches regards voting rights as a top priority because they help ensure that all citizens can have a role in choosing their governmental leaders. That includes citizens who lack other means of influence and access. And it’s hard not to notice that when it comes to policies benefitting ordinary North Carolinians such as adequate funding of public education, careful protection of the environment and fair taxation, supporters of those policies – including the Council – also tend to favor giving all qualified citizens a fair chance to vote. Sadly enough, the opposite as well too often holds true.