POLITICS
09/11/2014 07:33 am ET Updated Sep 11, 2014

How The Fight Against Voting Rights Restrictions Could Decide This Year's Marquee Senate Race

DURHAM, N.C. -- President Barack Obama won North Carolina by just 14,000 votes in 2008. Now, as Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) go head to head in a race that will determine which party controls the Senate, the state's voter turnout is in question: Will voting rights restrictions passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature dampen Democratic turnout in a year when the president isn't on the ballot? Or will the restrictions motivate voters instead?

After Republicans gained control of the governor's mansion and both chambers of the state legislature in 2012, Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed a bill last year which disallowed votes cast out-of-precinct, eliminated same-day registration, reduced the early voting period from 17 to 10 days and got rid of pre-registration for high school students. The legislation also mandated that voters have a government-issued piece of identification to vote in 2016, though not in 2014.

Unless a federal appeals court provides an injunction on Sept. 27, the legislative package will go into effect for November's elections. Critics of the law say it was aimed at disenfranchising students, seniors and minorities. The package of restrictions was one of the most salient issues during the Moral Monday protests that were provoked by the legislature's immediate rightward shift.

"This is very much a race about voter motivation," Ferrel Guillory, founder of the University of North Carolina's Program on Public Life, told The Huffington Post. He suggested that if voters are angry enough about what Tillis did as a leader in the state legislature on issues like voting rights, Hagan could defy the odds in a tough year for Democratic incumbents and squeak by.

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Gunther Peck, an associate professor at Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy, was arrested at a Moral Monday meeting in Raleigh last summer while protesting the legislative efforts of the state's general assembly. He and his wife, Faulkner Fox, also a professor at the university, are appealing an initial ruling that found them guilty of second-degree trespassing, failure to disperse on command and violating legislative building rules when they sang inside the legislative building's rotunda.

Peck, who serves as the faculty adviser for Duke Democrats, said the power of the Moral Monday movement is its ability to energize voters in response to the legislature's policies.

"It's not relying on one candidate, it doesn't have an election cycle to grow or fall to; it's continuing to galvanize a coalition of people on voting rights, on health care and other issues," he said.

Peck thought Hagan may indirectly benefit from the Moral Monday movement's activities, saying they have "re-energized parts of the Democratic base" and "continued to spread across the state."

"Politically, many of these folks aren't necessarily big Kay Hagan supporters, but it doesn't matter," he added. "They're going to be turning out the vote -- or trying to."

Though the North Carolina NAACP, which led the Moral Monday movement along with a coalition of other groups, has transitioned to focusing on voter education and registration ahead of the general election, Peck wasn't sure its efforts could be converted to political ends, even with the charismatic Rev. William Barber heading up the organization.

"They have wonderful moral leadership under Barber, but they've had some difficulty translating that into an electoral strategy," Peck said. "The question is about motivation -- which side is more motivated -- and that remains to be seen. The NAACP has helped to motivate people, but they haven't necessarily organized in a statewide fashion."

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At Democracy N.C., a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to increasing voter participation, bumper stickers in the parking lot read "VOTE: It's not illegal yet!" Organizers broached the possibility that the new restrictions won't be as harmful as voting rights activists fear in an interview with HuffPost.

"Some are saying that the boot down on people has been so harsh that there may be a backlash," Bob Hall, the group's executive director, said last week. "The turnout is not going to be as repressed as it might have been if there hadn't been the Moral Monday movement organizing, all the groups lifting this up, giving people a sense that you don't need to give up, there is still hope, there are things you can do."

Isela Gutiérrez-Gunter, a research associate with the group, explained that it is focused on educating voters about when and where they can vote, and on encouraging them to obtain identification before 2016.

"How do you encourage people to vote without scaring them?" Gutiérrez-Gunter said. "We're trying to let folks know about the changes to the law in a way that is helpful and practical as opposed to intimidating. It's a tough line to strike because there's a lot of anxiety about the voter ID provision going into effect."

Conservatives argue that the state's voting laws are "still among the most liberal in the country," comparing it to the 34 states that also require a government-issued identification to vote, the 31 states that require voters to cast provisional ballots in the precinct where they live and the 39 states that don't allow same-day registration on election day.

Gutiérrez-Gunter said it is important to remember "what tremendous access voters in North Carolina had" before the restrictions took effect.

Susan Myrick, an elections analyst with the Republican-affiliated Civitas Institute, told HuffPost that the package of restrictions was aimed at cracking down on voter fraud, as those who passed the law claimed at the time.

"Compare [North Carolina] to New York," Myrick said. "In New York they don't have early voting, and if you vote by mail you have to have an excuse. Even after these changes, a lot of these [provisions] are fixing things that needed to be fixed."

Myrick accused groups like Democracy N.C. of being disingenuous, saying that it was concerned about the new package of laws not because it would disenfranchise voters, but because the laws made registering them more challenging.

"They're turnout organizations, and it does appear to me that they're thinking about their convenience," she said. "It would make it much easier for them as organizations to have two and a half weeks to turn out people in person than in a 10-day period."

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At an Aug. 8 hearing before a federal judge, the NAACP's state chapter, the League of Women Voters and other plaintiffs argued that African-American voters are heavily represented among those who vote early, use same-day registration and accidentally vote out-of-precinct. For instance, in 2012, 70 percent of black voters voted early, and black voters made up 42 percent of those who registered and voted on the same day.

George Eppsteiner, a staff attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which is representing the plaintiffs in the voting rights suit, said he believed the Republican caucus in the state legislature passed the package of restrictions last year with the intent of restricting access, rather than combating fraudulent voting.

"There's no doubt that Tillis was in leadership in the conference that passed the law, and certainly our argument is that the law was passed in order to restrict voting access," he told HuffPost. "This isn't a political issue, this is a voting rights issue. Every North Carolina citizen, no matter their background, no matter their race, no matter their ability to pay, should be able to vote for whomever they choose, and that's not the case right now."

Back at Democracy N.C., Hall worried the July 2015 hearing won't produce the result the plaintiffs want if the court is convinced the state still has relatively progressive voting rights laws.

Imagine, he said, that one argues it is unconstitutional and a violation of the Voting Rights Act to get rid of out-of-precinct voting. "The other side will say, 'Pfft, [North Carolina voters] didn't have it until 2004, and all these other states don't even have it. What are you bitching about?'" he said. "And maybe the judge says, 'Hmm, well you're right.'" But, he pointed out, African-Americans, who make up 22 percent of registered voters, were 40 percent of those who voted outside of their precinct.

The North Carolina NAACP, Democracy N.C. and the other groups contesting the new voting rights restrictions hope the federal appeals court hearing their injunction request rules that the new laws were intentionally regressive, as Hall characterized them. And as they wait for the verdict later this month, the groups continue their work. But without same-day registration, and with fewer early voting days, time is running out.

HuffPost

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