A closely watched political fight is developing in North Carolina over voting rights and control of elections, as Democrats aim to recapture a presidential battleground and Republicans look to win back the governor’s office.
Much as Georgia, Florida and Texas drew an outpouring of national attention and political cash as Republicans moved to restrict voting in the heated months after the 2020 election, North Carolina is poised for headline-grabbing confrontations over nearly every lever of the electoral apparatus.
In the Republican-led legislature, the State House is considering two bills passed by the Senate that would sharply alter how elections are run, adding voting restrictions and effectively neutering the state elections board, which is now controlled by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat. And in a looming redistricting clash, the newly conservative State Supreme Court has ordered lawmakers to redraw the state’s congressional and state legislative maps, which will most likely be far friendlier to Republicans.
In North Carolina, every little edge could matter: The state, despite a long string of Republican presidential victories interrupted by Barack Obama’s 2008 triumph, has grown increasingly close. Donald J. Trump squeezed by in 2020 by just over a percentage point, and President Biden’s allies have signaled that they plan to invest in the state in 2024, seeing it as potentially winnable. Mr. Trump, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and other Republican candidates have already held events in North Carolina as they contend for their party’s nomination.
“North Carolina is one of the states that have both of the factors that exacerbate this,” said Wendy Weiser, the vice president for democracy at the Brennan Center for Justice, referring to Republican attempts to wield more power over voting and elections. “It is a battleground state and a state that has a history of discrimination in voting.”
She added, “It is definitely one of the most critical states to be worried about.”
Seismic shifts in North Carolina politics cleared the runway for Republicans to go on offense. They now have veto-proof legislative majorities after a Democratic representative defected to the G.O.P. in April, limiting what Mr. Cooper can halt. And conservatives captured the State Supreme Court in last year’s elections, upending it from a 4-to-3 liberal lean to a 5-to-2 conservative advantage.
Behind the scenes, a network of right-wing activists and election deniers led by Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who played a key role in efforts by Mr. Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election, has been meeting with North Carolina lawmakers, pushing its priorities and helping shape certain provisions.
Across the country, Republicans continue to try to tighten voting laws, arguing that they are needed to protect “election integrity” and pointing to voters’ Trump-fueled worries about election fraud.
So far this year, at least 11 states have passed 13 laws adding such restrictions, according to the Brennan Center. That is a slightly slower clip than in 2021, when Republican-led legislatures passed a flurry of voting laws, often in response to election lies spread by Mr. Trump and his supporters.
North Carolina has a particularly tortured past on voting rights. Under the Voting Rights Act, parts of the state were forced to obtain federal clearance to change voting laws because of their history of racially discriminatory election rules. More recently, in 2016, a federal court struck down a Republican-led voter identification law, saying it had targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Republicans have defended the latest measures. State Senator Warren Daniel, one of the primary sponsors of the bill to change voting laws, said on the chamber floor that the measure “increases confidence and transparency in our elections.” He added that certain changes, including a provision requiring that all absentee ballots be received by the time polls close on Election Day, would bring North Carolina in line with many other states.
Democrats, however, have denounced the voting proposals, with one state senator, Natasha Marcus, going so far as to call them a “jumbo jet of voter suppression.” During final debate on the bill, she said it “includes a lot of problematic things that are going to dissuade people from voting, throw out ballots, and suppress the votes of certain people in a way that I think is discriminatory and anti-democratic.”
A key provision would effectively eliminate same-day voter registration and replace it with a system in which voters would cast provisional ballots, then be required to follow up and verify their identities. Only some forms of identification would be acceptable: Data from the State Board of Elections found that in the four general elections since 2016, over 36 percent of voters who used same-day registration had provided IDs that the new law would not allow.
In 2016, when Republican state lawmakers tried to eliminate same-day registration, a Federal District Court found that it was “indisputable that African American voters disproportionately used” that method of voting. Black voters, the court found, made up 35 percent of same-day registrants in the 2012 election, while representing only 22 percent of the electorate.
The new legislation also makes mail voting more complicated, adding a requirement that voters’ signatures be verified and a “two-factor” authentication process that would be unique to North Carolina and has left voting experts confused as to how it would work.
As in other states, far more Democrats in North Carolina now vote by mail, with Mr. Trump and his allies instilling a widespread Republican distrust of the practice. In the 2022 midterm elections, more than 157,000 people in the state voted by mail. Forty-five percent were Democrats, and 35 percent were independents.
As Republican lawmakers wrote the legislation, they received outside help.
Three G.O.P. lawmakers, including Mr. Daniel, met in May with Ms. Mitchell, the Trump-allied lawyer, and Jim Womack, a leader of the North Carolina Election Integrity Teams. That organization is part of a national network of right-wing election activists coordinated in part by Ms. Mitchell, who declined to comment.
The two activists pressed the lawmakers on their laundry list of changes to election laws, including measures on same-day registration, absentee ballots and maintenance of voter lists, according to a video in which Mr. Womack summarized the meeting. The video was obtained by Documented, a liberal investigative group, and shared with The New York Times.
“Same-day registration, we’re all in agreement, violent agreement, that same-day registration will now be a provisional ballot,” Mr. Womack said in the video of the meeting. “So if you’re going to same-day register, it’s going to give you at least a little bit of time, maybe 7 to 10 days, to have a chance at researching and challenging that voter under the law as opposed to where it is now, where it’s less than 24 hours’ opportunity to do that.”
Mr. Daniel declined to answer questions about the role Ms. Mitchell and Mr. Womack played in drafting the bills.
A 2017 law aiming to restructure the state election board was struck down by the State Supreme Court. Now that the court is more conservative, Republicans have resurrected the effort.
Currently, Mr. Cooper appoints all five members of the board, but only three can be Democrats. Under the Republican proposal, the board would have eight members, all appointed by state lawmakers — four by Democratic leaders and four by Republican ones.
State Senator Paul Newton, the bill’s Republican sponsor, introduced it as a measure “intended to take partisan advantage out of elections administration entirely.”
The bill would all but certainly cause deadlock on many major election issues — a prospect that has alarmed election officials and democracy experts.
The current election board, after reports of harassment of election officials in 2022, stepped in with rules limiting access for poll watchers, a move that angered conservatives.
And there is one big unknown: What would happen if the new election board deadlocked over the certification of an election?
That possibility is unaddressed in the bill. Phil Berger, the Republican leader of the State Senate, told The News and Observer that any such deadlock would probably send the matter to the courts, where decisions could depend on the partisan lean of the judge or court in question.
“That’s a tell right there,” said Robyn Sanders, a counsel at the Brennan Center. “It seems pretty clear to me that it was deliberately designed so that there would be those kinds of situations.”
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