From arguments at the NC Supreme Court to a news conference outside the state legislative building, NCLCV and other citizen democracy advocates are pushing back hard against legislative efforts to suppress voting rights and concentrate ever more power in their own hands.
First last week, NCLCV and other democracy advocates held a well-covered news conference outside the NC Legislative Building to condemn new NC House rules and alert the public to the danger those rules create. The rules allow the House Speaker to call an override vote on any vetoed bill without warning to minority legislators, the media, or the public. These “ambush votes” would make it possible for the majority party’s Speaker to temporarily and artificially assemble the veto-proof supermajority which his party failed to earn from the voters last fall.
“These surprise votes rob us of our right to speak to our representatives before important votes happen, cutting [the public] out of the lawmaking process,” said Miles Beasley, a Saint Augustine University student and a Historically Black Colleges and Universities fellow at Common Cause North Carolina. Other speakers ranging from NCLCV’s Dan Crawford to Planned Parenthood South Atlantic’s Jillian Riley condemned the rules as a “shameful power grab meant to thwart the will of the people.”
Second, the newly seated revamped membership of the NC Supreme Court heard oral arguments about whether to take away the votes of an estimated 56,000 North Carolina citizens statewide. The people who would be disenfranchised if the Court adopts the results urged by the NC legislature’s Republican leaders include citizens who were convicted of a felony and have completed serving any prison or jail time to which they were sentenced, but who have not yet been able to pay all the court fees or fines that they owe.
The plaintiffs in the case won a lower-court decision that such an interpretation of state law violates the Constitution’s equal protection clauses. They presented evidence to the trial court showing that African-American felony offenders are denied the right to vote due to such limits at nearly three times the rate of white felony offenders. When attorneys for the Republican legislative leaders said that the laws are written without reference to race, the plaintiffs’ lawyers pointed out that that same argument was made to justify poll taxes and literacy tests, which were used during the Jim Crow era as ways to prevent Black citizens from voting.
In fact, plaintiffs’ attorneys pointed out that the interpretation that voting rights are not restored until all court fees and costs are paid amounts to an unconstitutional property qualification for voting, a practice banned under the United States and state constitutions for well over a century. The Court did not announce a decision in the case.
Finally, the Court on Friday announced that it would reconsider two critical cases decided just last year before two new Republican judges were added to the Court. One case ruled that extreme partisan gerrymandering violates the NC state constitution, and the other struck down as racially motivated the legislature’s latest version of a photo ID law requirement for voting.
“The legal issues are the same; the evidence is the same; and the controlling law is the same,” Associate Justice Anita Earls wrote in the dissent from the order agreeing to rehear the redistricting case. “The only thing that has changed is the political composition of the Court.” The new hearings are expected to be scheduled for mid-March.
“The state Supreme Court’s landmark ruling just last year was clear that partisan gerrymandering violates the constitutional freedoms of North Carolinians,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina. “Sadly, politicians in the legislature refuse to respect our rights as they seek power to illegally rig our elections.”