Legislative News by Nelda Holder –
Meeting in its fourth special session of this year, the 2017-18 NC Legislature convened on November 27 with the objective of signing an implementation bill for the new Voter ID amendment to the NC Constitution.
What this means is that voters, contrary to normal practices for constitutional amendments, actually had no idea how photo ID would be implemented when they approved that amendment in the November general election. Now they may be surprised.
The Republican-led lawmakers, finishing their final, post-election month with veto-proof majorities in both houses, passed Senate Bill 824—the “Implementation of Voter ID Constitutional Amendment”—and sent it off to Gov. Roy Cooper for his action. The Democratic governor opposed the Voter ID amendment in the general election, and now has the option of signing the implementation bill, vetoing it, or leaving it to sit on his desk until his signatory deadline passes and the bill becomes law by default.
A foul history
Voter identification has quite a history of court intervention in North Carolina because of its discriminatory effects. Or, as a 2016 federal court ruling blatantly describes, discriminatory intent (for background, see “Court Issues Ruling on Carolina Voting Rights,” The Urban News, August 11, 2016). So the Republican majority’s new attempt to require that voters show photo identification at the polls by writing this into the state Constitution was a different ploy, and came despite polls that indicated a majority of respondents saw voter identification as discriminatory. But the amendment passed by a roughly 10-percentage-point majority.
There were, however, no stipulations on the ballot regarding what forms of photo ID would be acceptable. Now newly incoming legislators in 2019 who were elected at the same time the amendment passed will not get to decide on how it is administered. The retiring legislature just preempted that option. In the process, it preempted due discussion among the populace regarding this new voting requirement.
Thus we have the SB-824, with its 21 pages of details, now lying on the governor’s desk. Its requirements for acceptable photo IDs (see sidebar) are at least broader, as compared to the last round of legislative dictate nixed by the courts—though not broad enough for the bill’s critics. And while the types of allowable photo ID cards have expanded, expiration dates must be monitored. For example, a new stipulation that requires county boards of elections to provide for free voter photo identification cards if requested (just one of several acceptable cards) stipulates that the card will expire in 10 years.
A national display
Meanwhile, as the new voter ID requirements were being rolled out to ostensibly prevent voter fraud in the state—examples of which are practically non-existent—North Carolina suddenly found itself in the national news again regarding its voting record, this time over what appears to be election fraud, not voter fraud.
The details of this blight on the state’s electoral reputation are still being sorted out, but irregularities in absentee ballot voting in two NC counties—Bladen and Robeson—indicate the possibility of tampering with absentee ballots and other illegal procedures in the absentee system. More specifically, there is every appearance of absentee ballot tampering done systematically on behalf of one of the candidates for the U.S. Congress, though there is no determination that he was aware of the operation.
There are plenty of readily available reports on this situation in both state and national news media, but hanging in the balance are (1) the outcome of the 9th Congressional District election; and (2) the overall integrity of this state’s electoral process—or more specifically, the management of that process.
The new legislation governing photo ID does make a small stab at safeguarding absentee ballot administration by passing the job off to the “State Board,” currently being reconstituted (see Voting ID). That board is charged with adopting rules that “provide for the forms of identification that must be included with the written request for an absentee ballot,” which may include attaching an “electronic or physical copy of the identification card to the written request.”
The State Board was given until March 1, 2019, to report on “any other recommendations to secure the absentee voting by mail process,” including potential criminal penalties and improved “chain of custody.”
Who’s in charge anyhow?
All this is happening at a time that the State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement, which replaced the former State Board of Elections, has had its new framework declared unconstitutional (for the second time) in a 2-1 split decision from a three-member panel of NC Superior Court judges in October. The new board had been structured by the Republican-led General Assembly in a way that would limit the power of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Subsequently, the legislature’s proposed constitutional amendment to create a legislatively appointed board failed at the ballot box in November.
The current board has a temporary stay for another couple of weeks while a new bill in the special session, HB 1117, attempts to create two boards: A State Board of Election Administration (sound familiar?) for elections administration, consisting of five members (no more than three of the same political party); and a State Board of Ethics, Lobbying and Campaign Finance, consisting of eight members (four appointed by the governor with no more than two of the same political party; two each—not of the same party—appointed by the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate).
Other actions necessitated by court decree include SB 821, which sunsets—effective June 30, 2019—six other board and commission changes made by the Legislature: Child Care Commission, Water Management Trust Fund Board of Trustees, NC Parks and Recreation Authority, the Private Protective Services Board, Rural Infrastructure Authority, and the State Building Commission.
Hurricane Florence funds draining away
The Legislature did use this special session to pass Senate Bill 823, now signed by the governor, to provide another $299,800,000 in disaster relief from the Hurricane Florence Disaster Recovery Fund. The bulk of that money, $240,000,000, was allocated to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for the Hurricane Florence Agricultural Disaster Program of 2018. The Department of Public Instruction was allocated $23,500,000 for repair and renovation of facilities.
Other entities receiving funds included the Department of Public Instruction, $1,500,000 to repair or replace food and nutrition supplies and equipment; $5,000,000 for The Golden L.E.A.F. foundation for small business loans; $10,000,000 to the Department of Environmental Quality, Division of Marine Fisheries to commercial fishing assistance; and $18,500,000 to the DEQ’s Coastal Storm Damage Mitigation Fund.
The allotment left the state’s Hurricane Florence Disaster Recovery allocation of $849,430,477 with a current balance of $94,700,000.
Nelda Holder is the author of The Thirteenth Juror – Ferguson: A Personal Look at the Grand Jury Transcripts.