Courier Graphic by Tania Lili NC Sen. Phil Berger
Courier Graphic by Tania Lili

They say when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.  That’s why Sen. Phil Berger’s recent handwringing over the prospect of expanding North Carolina’s absentee voting in the face of the coronavirus pandemic rings so hollow for me.

As Senate President Pro Tempore, Berger serves as gatekeeper over every single piece of legislation that moves through the General Assembly.  Since his party gained a majority in both chambers nearly a decade ago, Berger has consistently supported attempts to suppress the votes of those most likely to challenge the Republican hold on power.  

The North Carolina redistricting that took place after the 2010 census is broadly considered the most egregious example of partisan gerrymandering in the nation.  A three-judge panel that found NC’s legislative districts unconstitutional in 2019 wrote in their ruling that the maps did not “permit voters to freely choose their representative, but rather representatives are choosing voters.”  The court ordered that Republican legislators redraw districts without “partisan considerations and election results data.”

Sen. Berger has also presided over multiple attempts to enact unnecessarily restrictive voter ID laws.  Those laws would essentially amount to 21st century poll taxes by placing a disproportionately high burden on the traditionally Democratic voters of color who are least likely to have photo ID and also can least afford to take time off work to get one.  

The courts have consistently agreed.

In 2016, a federal court struck down 2013 election reforms passed by the North Carolina General Assembly, ruling that they were “enacted with racially discriminatory intent.”  The court’s ruling stated that the legislation–which included strict photo ID requirements–targeted African American voters “with almost surgical precision.” 

Two years later, Berger and company revived the approach, this time via a constitutional amendment added to the 2018 general election ballot.  Republican campaign efforts emphasized the need to prevent voter fraud despite an audit by the NC State Board of Elections having found only one occurrence—out of nearly 5 million votes cast in the 2016 general election—in which the vote would have been prevented by requiring photo ID.  

The constitutional amendment was passed by voters but later blocked by a federal judge and the N.C. Court of Appeals, who, again, found the law had been written with “discriminatory intent.”

This is the sordid, vote-suppressing history Sen. Berger brings with him to the developing debate over how to best conduct North Carolina elections during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

In a recent statement to the Observer Editorial Board about the possibility of expanding mail-in voting, Berger said he had “zero trust that this process would be fair or transparent,” raising concerns that he will balk at efforts to make voting more accessible in the November 2020 general election.  

It’s important to note this could well be the election that loosens the stranglehold Berger’s party has held on political power in North Carolina since 2010.  In the House, Democrats need to gain six seats to take the majority. In the Senate, flipping four seats would give each party an even number with a new Lieutenant Governor holding the tie-breaking vote.

It’s impossible to say with any degree of certainty what will be happening with COVID-19 in November, but predictions are not encouraging.  Scientists say we’re likely 12-18 months from having an effective vaccine and that the only other way to ensure immunity from the virus is through developing the antibodies that come from being infected and recovering.  Allowing the virus to spread unabated in order to achieve so-called “herd immunity” would come at an enormous cost of life. More than 2 million could die of coronavirus in the United States alone.

For the foreseeable future, life as we know it will continue under stringent social distancing guidelines that have shut down schools, churches and businesses and ushered in strict limits on how many people can congregate in public.  We can be optimistic that things will look different when the general election rolls around, but with only about six months to go until voting begins—and just three months until absentee ballots go out—we need to plan as though they might not.

Many states have already begun to adjust voting practices in light of the danger of COVID-19 community spread.  As of last week, 16 states and 1 territory had taken action, including expansion of mail-in voting options and/or postponing primary elections.  In fact, only Wisconsin proceeded with business as usual, holding its April 7 election after Republican legislators successfully blocked that state’s Democratic governor’s effort to delay voting until June.  In Democrat-dominated urban areas such as Milwaukee, many polling locations remained closed due to a lack of workers who were willing to risk infection.

Sen. Berger’s statement to the Observer Editorial Board came just three days later.  While the timing could be coincidental, it’s also possible that Wisconsin just provided Berger with a blueprint for a particularly appalling new method of voter suppression.  

North Carolinians need to hold Phl Berger accountable and demand that the state’s most powerful legislator prioritize protecting our democratic values as well as our health and well-being.  Acting on recent requests by North Carolina’s State Board of Elections to make absentee voting more feasible during an unprecedented pandemic would be a great place for him to start.