By Nelda Holder –
No matter how you look at the state of North Carolina in December, 2016, it is a state that has been wounded.
There is massive destruction resulting from Hurricane Matthew’s rain belt in the east, with loss of lives, property, and livelihood. Far too many families are still homeless and facing a bleak Christmas and perilous New Year.
There is massive loss of habitat and natural treasure in the west, where the region’s drought and resultantly aggressive wildfires have left a wake of destruction over thousands of forest acres, with a particularly devastating hot spot just across the border in Gatlinburg, TN, where residences, businesses, and more than a dozen lives were lost.
And there has been a destructive political storm in the center of the state that kept the results of our gubernatorial election from being finalized from November 8 until December 5. Additionally, the ins and outs of various legal battles over our voting rights and districts continue at the federal level, with costly legal fees.
Addressing the disasters
On December 13, a special session of the Legislature, called by Gov. Pat McCrory, is set to address the needs outlined by the study committee McCrory assembled following the hurricane, and additional needs caused by WNC’s wildfires. The state’s economic damage is estimated at $2 billion; McCrory has asked for $1 billion in federal disaster relief. The state has already been allocating money from its emergency funds, but the Legislature must approve supplemental money for those purpose(s). There is money available in the Savings Reserve Fund (known as the Rainy Day Fund)—hence the need for the legislative session.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has already been active in both flooding and fire disaster areas. And with the pending infusion of aid, people down east will hopefully receive the help they need to rebuild their lives, homes, and businesses—with an eye toward planning for the seemingly inevitable return of hurricane havoc across the coming years. And firefighters in the west will hopefully receive funding for necessary equipment and preparation to do battle again on the scale we have just seen.
With such real disaster needs in mind, in addition to a host of other needs in the state, it is unpleasant to contemplate the taxpayer money lost to outside legal fees at the behest of the legislative leadership. According to Raleigh’s The News & Observer, the total is currently at $10.5 million, spent for “defending controversial laws on everything from redistricting to voter ID to House Bill 2”—laws that the duly elected Attorney General refused to defend in court.
The “shadow” of justice
According to Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (one of the challengers to the new laws), our lawmakers created a “shadow” Justice Department “enriching private attorneys who are unanswerable to the public and unaccountable to the voters.” Earls concludes that with so many laws ruled unconstitutional, the leadership’s “outside counsel” strategy is “ultimately ineffective.”
Those millions (with more to come) have been spent on outside attorneys by the Legislature defending actions that have now been thrown out by the federal courts—actions that compromised the access to voting rights in this state, and were predicted to do just that before they passed. The court-mandated two-and-a-half weeks of early voting in our most recent election, which eased the process for the voters, upended both the legislation and the averred wishes of the legislature. Most recently, the courts have called for new legislative maps in the state and a brand new legislative election in the changed districts in 2017. This was due to findings of racial gerrymandering on the part of legislators who drew and passed the original districts in 2011.
It’s not just money
Money, however, is not the real cost of the voting arguments. The compromising of voter rights and voter participation is the too-steep price we are paying.
Because of the Voting Information Verification Act passed in North Carolina in 2013, over the objections of many nonpartisan groups that focus on voter rights, the state was on the receiving end of a stern reprimand and decision in federal district court last July (see “Court Issues Ruling on North Carolina Voting Rights” in our August edition). Immediate changes were rightfully demanded, and across the state, county boards of elections had to change procedures midstream after gearing up to meet the newer legislative demands.
Those demands, according to the court, had included five ways the legislation had compromised the state’s voting franchise in a prejudicial way. The state was specifically instructed to resume the previous number of early voting days (adding seven days), and to allow same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct provisional voting. Additionally, the new requirement for photo ID was repealed (which did not eliminate other identification requirements already in place).
As a result, the heavy turnout in this presidential election year incorporated the longer voting period and better access to the voting franchise—something seen by many (including the courts) as appropriate for the voting franchise. (The unofficial tally of statewide votes indicated 68.98 percent [4,769,654 out of 6,914,248] of eligible voters took part in the 2016 election.)
However, that voting franchise was immediately questioned following the NC election, and announcements were made to the press by the incumbent governor’s campaign regarding widespread voter fraud in the state. Set against a statewide network of boards of elections that were all dominated (by law) by a majority of Republicans, it was an odd case of political cannibalism.
Now we know that the claim of fraud in 50 counties was a false alarm. Ultimately, there were 51 filings of ineligible votes in a total of 34 counties, and many of those were proven to be inaccurate. The massive fraud, it would seem, boiled down to a small number of irregularities. And the governor’s call for a recount in Durham County, where mechanical problems caused a delay in counting over 94,000 votes on election night, yielded a grand total of three additional votes for Governor-elect Cooper, and took away one vote from McCrory’s total there. So much for massive voter fraud (even though McCrory’s concession speech still referred to “continued questions that should be answered regarding the voting process.”)
We, the voters, are not fraudulent
Legislatures and courts are the formal structures that shape and determine legal voting rights. But ultimately, it is up to each citizen of this state to take responsibility for ensuring the democratic process of voting. We have a system designed for a “citizen legislature,” where the job of legislating is supposed to allow enough time to maintain employment and life in one’s home territory. We need to look more closely at just how our legislators represent us—the residents of their districts. And we need to jealously guard our voting franchise.
We, the voters, should not allow a smokescreen called “voter fraud” to dissuade us from exercising our right and duty to vote. There were 10,000 votes among 4.7 million this year that determined the outcome of the governor’s race, illustrating the importance of every vote.
Now the state is about to reach the turning of a page. The new year of 2017 will begin shortly. A new governor will be sworn into office. A new legislative session will begin. It is a good time to look at this passage from our own state’s Constitution.
“All political power is vested in and derived from the people; all government of right originates from the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole.” (Article 1, Declaration of Rights, Section 2)
In a very personal way, I believe it is time to focus on the good of the whole. Not the good of the “party.” Not the good of the individual legislator or governor. Not the good of campaign contributors and other outside influences.
I believe we, the people, should put our shoulders to the task of healing the deep wounds in the east and to recovery from the vast losses in the west. And to do those things, we must work together as a “people” to set this state on a course of government that realizes the meaning of “whole.”
Nelda Holder is the author of The Thirteenth Juror – Ferguson: A Personal Look at the Grand Jury Transcripts. Read Holder’s blog, www.politicallypurplenc.com