NC Republicans override vetoes of laws that could cause election chaos and increase pollution

Hog waste flows into the waste pond at Everette Murphrey Farm in Farmville, N.C. in 2017. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

By Michael McElroy

October 12, 2023

Gov. Roy Cooper and several advocacy groups filed separate suits arguing that recent elections bills and other new laws were not just harmful, but unconstitutional.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly overrode several vetoes from Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday, enacting laws that will likely make it harder for North Carolinians to vote and easier for industries to pollute the state’s waterways. 

The collection of laws also transfer appointment power from the governor’s office to the legislature and restructure the state and county boards of election in a way that would likely snarl decision making, giving ultimate say in many cases to Republican lawmakers.

Soon after the final votes, Cooper and several advocacy groups filed separate suits against some of the laws, arguing that key provisions were not just harmful, but unconstitutional.

The other law loosens regulations intended to prevent poultry farms, hog farms and hog waste facilities from polluting waterways and nearby communities, whose residents are mostly low-income people of color. 

Here’s a look at some of the laws and the lawsuits they inspired. 

Voting by Mail and Election Gridlock 

Republicans claim the two election bills they passed will restore voter confidence in state elections, but they will be more of a threat to the right to vote than to voter fraud, advocates say. The bills were written after conversations with Cleta Mitchell, a former lawyer for Donald Trump who tried to help him overturn the 2020 election and who has privately called for laws to make it harder for young people to vote. 

“This legislation has nothing to do with election security and everything to do with Republicans keeping and gaining power,” Cooper said in his veto message.

Senate Bill 749 would create an equal number of seats on both state and local boards of elections, and split them equally between Republicans and Democrats. But far from removing the specter of partisan advantage, as Republicans say, it would instead likely mean tied votes on vital decisions. 

And who would break the tie in many cases? The Republican legislature. 

If the tie goes unbroken? No decision gets made, which means in the case of deciding how many early voting sites a county has in a given year, the number defaults to one, as in one early voting site for all of Mecklenburg County and its 776,000 registered voters. 

Senate Bill 747 is more sweeping, granting nearly free range to partisan observers at election sites, allowing conspiracy theorists to challenge valid votes without evidence, and making it harder for local officials to pay for the cost of running elections. 

But the biggest change ends the three-day grace period for voting by mail, one of the most popular forms of voting in North Carolina. 

Mail delays were a huge problem in 2020 and remain an issue, especially in rural counties. 

If this provision had been in effect in 2020, it would have tossed out more than 13,000 valid ballots. 

Republicans said that this change was necessary to restore voter confidence in elections. But voter fraud is exceedingly rare in North Carolina, the state board of elections has won several awards for its fairness and competency, and a significant majority of people who distrust the process are Republican voters who believe the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. 

The Lawsuits

Responding to the veto override, state and national Democrats quickly filed a lawsuit against the new election laws in federal court. A group of voting rights organizations, including Down Home North Carolina, filed a suit as well. 

The Democrats’ lawsuit covers many provisions in SB 747, while the Down Home suit focuses mostly on one.

State law allows North Carolinians to register and vote at the same time during the early voting period. The provision being challenged in the Down Home suit requires elections officials to send a single notice to same-day voters by mail after they vote, seeking to confirm their address. If that notice is returned as undeliverable, the registration and ballot can’t be counted.

But there are several reasons mail could be returned as undeliverable, and voter fraud is way down the list. 

According to the lawsuit, post office errors account for more than 20% of “return to sender” situations nationwide. 

“This harmful provision threatens to disenfranchise eligible voters without due process of law and, in some cases, based on mistakes made by third-parties over which the voter has no control,” the lawsuit says.

While the law narrows the window for absentee ballots, it makes it easier for people to challenge ballots cast by others. Anyone can file a challenge for any reason and now they have more time to do so.

Challenges used to be due by 5 p.m. on Election Day. Now they can come up to five days after.

“The legislature has thus perversely given less time to those who seek to exercise their fundamental right to vote and more time to those who seek to deny it,” the Democrats’ lawsuit reads. 

Senate Bill 512, the ‘Power Grab’

Several pieces of legislation this session have taken power away in both sips and gulps from the governor’s office. 

That is a main theme of Senate Bill 512 too, which strips Cooper of the ability to name members to several state entities, including environmental, healthcare and transportation-related commissions. 

Cooper filed a lawsuit in state court seeking to block this bill entirely.

This move is “a blatantly unconstitutional legislative power grab,” Cooper said in a news release about the lawsuit.  

“Over the years, the North Carolina Supreme Court has repeatedly held in bipartisan decisions that the legislature cannot seize executive power like this no matter what political parties control which offices,” the governor added. “The efforts of Republican legislators to destroy the checks and balances in our constitution are bad for people and bad for our democracy.”

House Bill 600, Hog Farms and Pipelines

This one loosens several environmental regulations, including those intended to prevent poultry farms, hog farms, and hog waste facilities from polluting waterways and nearby communities, whose residents are mostly low-income people of color. 

The law, which started out as an effort to add regulations to animal shelters, says it seeks to “provide further regulatory relief to the citizens of North Carolina.”

The legislation limits the reasons state environmental regulators can deny permits to hog farms for waste lagoons, removing civil rights concerns and histories of environmental racism as a metric to consider.

“House Bill 600 is a good-faith effort to help reduce the regulatory burden on North Carolinians and their businesses,” Republican Rep. Jeff Zenger told the News and Observer.  “I am disappointed that Governor Cooper has sided with radical, environmentalist, job crushing bureaucrats over the people of North Carolina.”

So what problems were those “radical, environmentalist, job crushing bureaucrats” trying to solve?

Communities near hog farms have much higher rates of health problems than can be explained by poverty alone, studies show.

Children who attend schools near hog farms have higher rates of asthma and other ailments. 

Residents who live within a mile of these farms and hog lagoons have higher rates of high blood pressure, breathing problems, kidney disease, and infant mortality. 

The bill also weakens water protections, which makes a controversial pipeline more likely to come through the state, and allows poultry farms to bury dead chickens anywhere they want, without first getting a permit from the Department of Environmental Quality. 

One of the bill’s sponsors, Republican State Rep. Jimmy Dixon of Duplin County, helped pass legislation in 2017 and 2018 that prevented community members from filing lawsuits against the hog farms that destroyed their quality of life and threatened their health.

He compared the community members who complained of the farms’ never-ending stench, flies and threat of disease to prostitutes and their lawyers to pimps. 

Author

  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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