GOP’s Response to Vote-by-Mail: More Voter Roll Purges

North Carolina, COVID-19, voting info
North Carolina officials urge Gov. Roy Cooper (D) to expand access to mail-in voting this November amid COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the country. Photo credit: © Mehmet Demirci/ZUMA Wire
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Republicans hoping to give themselves an edge in swing states have set their sights on yet another voter roll purge in North Carolina.

After more than 500,000 voters were removed from the rolls in North Carolina at the end of 2019, the right-wing, self-described “election integrity” group Judicial Watch filed a federal lawsuit in mid-April against the North Carolina State Board of Elections (NCSBE) and two counties that were easily won by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D) in 2016. The suit demanded that nearly 1 million names be purged from the voter rolls due to “inactivity.”

Voting-rights groups have criticized Judicial Watch for the integrity of its data, noting that Mecklenburg and Guilford counties — which are charged in the lawsuit — include large minority communities and already have to overcome a number of barriers to vote. Notably, Mecklenburg has also been significantly outpacing other North Carolina counties in confirmed coronavirus cases, according to the New York Times

A Targeted Removal

Election officials across the country are scrambling to balance public safety and their responsibility to carry out the 2020 election amid a global pandemic. A growing number of voting-rights groups and elected officials are urging the public to register and request an absentee ballot online in order to protect access to voting and avoid crowded polling places.

But with Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) facing a tough reelection this year, and Democrats hoping to regain control of the Senate and unseat President Donald Trump, Judicial Watch’s lawsuit has been criticized as a “targeted removal” of eligible voters amid a global health crisis in order to win the November election.

Jo Nicholas, president of the League of Women Voters (LWV) of North Carolina, disputed Judicial Watch’s number of ineligible voters and argued that now is the wrong time to file a lawsuit — especially as local election officials are trying to prepare their counties for an election with so many uncertainties.

“It’s not only wrong data that was put into the lawsuit, it is not time now to purge voters who are having a difficult time accessing their polls,” Nicholas told WhoWhatWhy. “[Officials] already did the purging that was required by the State Board of Elections, and now [Judicial Watch] is coming up and saying they’re finding this.”

“North Carolina voters are facing increased voter suppression during a global pandemic, and they deserve better.” —Chris Carson, president of the board of directors for League of Women Voters 

This is not the first time Judicial Watch has been involved in a voter purge case. In 2018, the Supreme Court upheld a voter roll purge that the group agreed to with Ohio officials. And, a federal court ordered election officials in Montgomery County, MD — which also has a large minority population — to provide the group with its voter rolls “that [included] the registered voters’ date of birth,” according to a press release from Judicial Watch on Wednesday.

Judicial Watch’s lawsuit has been heavily criticized as an attempt to make voting more difficult in typically Democratic strongholds amid a time of crisis. The group filed its lawsuit the day after NCSBE executive director Karen Brinson Bell asked state lawmakers to consider, among other measures, expanding access to mail-in voting and allowing voters to use documents like a utility bill as proof of identification in lieu of a driver’s license.

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Meanwhile, in response to Judicial Watch’s lawsuit, the progressive think tank Dēmos and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice filed a motion on behalf of Nicholas’s organization and its partner, the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute, to intervene in the case late Tuesday night. Chris Carson, president of the board of directors for LWV of the United States, said in a statement that “North Carolina voters are facing increased voter suppression during a global pandemic, and they deserve better.”

“North Carolina election officials are desperately working to ensure that safe and accessible elections can be conducted this year,” added Allison Riggs, interim executive director and chief counsel for voting rights at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. 

“This lawsuit is a despicable attempt to push a voter suppression agenda during a public health crisis.”

As of now, voters in North Carolina can still request an absentee ballot. The catch? There needs to be a witness signature on their ballot that verifies a person’s identity, and the ballot needs to be notarized.

What happened in Wisconsin appears to have motivated some of the calls for mail-in voting by voting-rights groups and election officials throughout the country. As of this week, there have been at least 19 confirmed cases of coronavirus as a result of in-person voting in Wisconsin, according to Talking Points Memo. In Milwaukee, where the city went from having 180 to just five polling places, health officials told CNN that at least seven cases were tied to in-person voting during the primary election.

“We’re going to have a lot of predicaments there,” Nicholas said, adding, “we don’t want to be like Wisconsin.”

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Anthony Crider / Flickr (CC BY 2.0) and Mapswire (CC BY 4.0).

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