A Few Lawsuits Later, The Courts Made Voting in NC in 2020 More Fair. Here’s What You Need to Know.

A rendering of attorney Allison Riggs' argument during League of Women Voters v. Rucho in 2019. (Art by Art Lien)

By Max Millington

September 3, 2020

An attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice tells us what we need to know about voter ID, new voting maps, mail-in ballots, and voting in the time of coronavirus.

[Editor’s Note: The following is part of COURIER and Cardinal & Pine’s “Your Vote 2020” project. For more North Carolina coverage of voting this year, go here. For national coverage, go here.]

Hilary Harris Klein joined the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in 2020 as counsel for the voting rights program. 

The nonprofit, along with good government advocates at Common Cause NC, the League of Women Voters and the NAACP, has played an integral role in making voting fairer in the Tar Heel state. 

SCSJ’s founding director, civil rights attorney Anita Earls, is now a member of the NC Supreme Court. And its interim director, Allison Riggs, led a team that litigated legislative attempts at voter suppression and gerrymandering by lawmakers in the NC General Assembly. 

In 2020, North Carolina goes to the polls with theoretically fairer maps because of the efforts of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, after decades of partisan and racial gerrymanders by legislators. 

Klein sat down with Cardinal & Pine to share the outcomes of key voting litigation and provide useful information for North Carolina voters as they go to the polls this year.

For more from the SCSJ on making a voting plan, check out additional information here

C&P: What was the outcome of your voter ID case? (Note: Despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the US or in NC, Republican state lawmakers have attempted multiple times to impose stricter voter ID requirements. In 2018, voters passed a vaguely-worded constitutional amendment for voter ID. But in 2019, citing alleged “discriminatory intent” by state lawmakers, a federal judge ordered an injunction on the legislature’s law implementing the amendment, meaning it will not be in effect in this year’s election. For more information, check out the nonpartisan Democracy NC’s FAQ on voter ID here.)

Hilary: We have now been able to obtain what’s called an injunction against the voter ID law. This means that the Court of Appeals has said North Carolina cannot enforce the voter ID law. So voters in general are not going to be required to show ID for the upcoming election.

There is an exception for some first-time voters in a jurisdiction, they are required to show some form of ID and that’s a requirement under the Help America Vote Act. The idea is that they can include alternative IDs, in addition to what you think of as your standard IDs like a driver’s license. They can also show for example, a bank statement or utility bill or basically any government document that shows the voter’s name and address.

RELATED: Pandemic or Not, It’s Almost Time to Vote in NC. Here’s What Not To Do.

C&P: What should someone do if they are asked to show ID at the polls?

Hilary: First of all, they can ask to speak to a supervisor, sometimes that could even go as high as the chief judge. There should also be poll watchers and poll monitors. They’ll be outside the polling location. If voters encounter any issues, they can also approach those individuals. There’s also going to be an election protection hotline and that will be advertised at polling locations. Individuals can call that hotline. 

We really urge people that if they believe that they are wrongfully being asked for an ID that they actually do follow up and do something because they might not be the only person. They can also call their county boards of elections to report that issue as well.

RELATED: The Facts About Vote-By-Mail in North Carolina

C&P: The SCSJ fought for safe voting rights due to the pandemic. What was the outcome of that litigation?

Hilary: We have sought relief and are still seeking relief to loosen and to modify certain restrictions on voting. The most important point of relief that we obtained was now for the first time in North Carolina, voters will have to be notified and they will have to be given the opportunity to be heard before their mail-in ballot can be rejected. 

This is important because North Carolina has historically high rates of absentee ballot rejection as compared to other states where voters vote in comparable numbers by mail. Counties are going to be required to start evaluating whether absentee ballots have been properly certified about five weeks before the election. So, the earlier you get your absentee ballot in, the earlier you’re going to be notified if it could be rejected. 

C&P: NC looks like it is going to be a test case for how the USPS handles delivery, a major issue in this election. Is it possible we’ll see litigation around this?

Hilary: I’m not sure if there will be litigation or not around the USPS. What we do anticipate, and the USPS also has anticipated, is that if voters wait too long to request an absentee ballot, there’s a risk that they will not either receive that or be able to return that ballot in time to be counted. The USPS has said, to allow for at least a week to receive the ballot and at least a week to send the ballot back. 

C&P: Is there any other important information voters should know? 

Hilary: In North Carolina, voters can technically request an absentee ballot by mail as late as October 27, but it is not a good idea to wait that long. Voters should do that as soon as possible, because if you wait until the statutory deadline of Oct. 27, there’s a real possibility that you might not be able to submit your ballot in time. 

If a voter is really concerned about putting their absentee ballot in the mail, they can actually deliver it themselves to the county board of elections. During the early voting period, Oct. 15 to 31st, they can drop it off at an early voting site.


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