Ruling Comes in NAACP Suit Charging State Illegally Suppressed Right to Vote of Thousands of Black Residents
In At Least Three Counties, Voters Declared Ineligible Following Bogus Change- in-Residence Claims; Violates National Voting Registration Act
DURHAM—A federal judge Thursday issued a restraining order blocking state and county boards of elections from illegally canceling the registrations of thousands of voters who are being targeted in a coordinated effort right out of the GOP playbook to suppress the black vote in the state.
The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed Monday by the North Carolina NAACP, which charged that in Beaufort, Moore and Cumberland counties, boards of elections have cancelled registrations of thousands of voters solely on the basis of a challenge process triggered by individuals who produced single mailings returned as undeliverable, purporting to show a change in residence—without written confirmation from the affected voters or compliance with federal voter registration laws.
“There is little question that the County Boards’ process of allowing third parties to challenge hundreds and, in Cumberland County, thousands of voters within 90 days before the 2016 General Election constitutes the type of “systematic” removal prohibited by the National Voter Registration Act,” U.S. District Judge Loretta C. Biggs wrote.
Facts produced in the lawsuit confirmed that several other counties have likely committed similar illegal purges.
“This emergency injunction will help make sure not a single voters’ voice is unlawfully taken away,” said the Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP. “The NAACP is defending rights of all North Carolinians to participate in this election and we will not back down and allow this suppression to continue. This is our Selma.”
Earlier Friday, President Obama read from a letter from one of the plaintiffs, 100-year-old Grace Bell Hardison, whose voter registration had been challenged. And late Tuesday night, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a statement of interest supporting the North Carolina NAACP’s argument that the mass purging of voters from the rolls in the state is a violation of the National Voter Registration Act.
In its statement, the DOJ writes, “the purge program at issue here rested on a mass mailing and the silence of voters largely unaware of the potential injury to their voting rights. A perfunctory administrative proceeding to consider evidence produced by a mass mailing does not turn an otherwise prohibited systematic process into an ‘individualized’ removal.”
In many cases, voters purged by the state still reside at the addresses where they are registered to vote, or have moved within the county and remain eligible to vote there, according to the complaint, filed Monday in federal court in the Middle District of North Carolina.
Nonetheless, a single item of returned mail, sent via a coordinated campaign led by individuals with GOP ties, has resulted in thousands of voters’ removal from the rolls. The mass removals violate the National Voting Registration Act, which limits states’ authority to cancel voter registrations based on change in residence, and other federal laws.
The NVRA permits states to cancel registrations only if a voter either confirms the residence change in writing or is given a notice and then fails to respond or vote for two federal election cycles. It also prohibits all systemic voter removal programs within 90 days of a federal election, but the state has canceled thousands of registrations in the final weeks before Election Day.
Take, for example, James Edward Arthur Sr., a lifelong resident of Beaufort County, where at least 138 voters have been challenged in recent weeks. Mr. Arthur, who is African American, became a registered voter in Beaufort County in November 2011, has voted in at least 14 elections since then, and had planned to vote in the upcoming Nov. 8 election. But his registration was cancelled by the Beaufort County Board of Elections on or after Oct. 24, 2016, as a result of a third-party challenge based solely on undeliverable mass mailings that led to a challenge.
“I did not receive notice from the State or Beaufort County that my voter registration had been challenged, or that a hearing had been set to determine whether I would remain on the State’s list of eligible voters,” said Mr. Arthur, who is a plaintiff in the suit. “If I knew my right to vote was in jeopardy, I would do whatever I could to protect it. I want and plan to vote in the upcoming election, but I am concerned that since my registration has been canceled I will not be able to cast a ballot or it will not be counted.”
Like Mr. Arthur, many of these voters simply moved to another residence within Beaufort County, and many others had not changed their residence at all, but nonetheless sometimes do not receive mail for various reasons. In Mr. Arthur’s case, he moved to a nursing home due to a leg injury, but remained in Beaufort County.
The en masse voter challenges in Beaufort County have disproportionately targeted African American voters, who comprise only 25.9% of the Beaufort County population, but account for more than 65% (91 of 138) of the challenges.
Among those is Grace Bell Hardison, a 100-year-old African American woman from Beaufort County who has voted regularly for 24 straight years. Ms. Hardison, whose registration was upheld following outcry when her story was publicized and supported by the NC NAACP, is also among the plaintiffs in the suit.
Similar practices have occurred in Cumberland County, where 3,951 registrations were challenged by a single individual as a result of returned mail from mass mailings. The bulk challenges are also taking place in Moore County, where a single individual challenger, Tea Party activist N. Carol Wheeldon, submitted forms in July 2016 challenging approximately 400 registered voters. In Moore County, it appears the sole basis for all of these challenges was undelivered, returned letters from a mass mailing, which Ms. Wheeldon attached to her challenge forms in support of her claim that “the person is not a resident of the precinct in which the person is registered.” The letters used in Ms. Wheeldon’s mailing were expressly marked “DO NOT FORWARD.”
Wheeldon is a member of the Moore County Tea Party and, according to the Nation, “has worked closely with the right-wing Voter Integrity Project, which has aggressively pushed discredited claims of voter fraud.”
“The voter purges have a long history of being racially-motivated and terribly inaccurate," said Penda Hair, an attorney for the North Carolina NAACP. “It’s a timeworn GOP strategy to suppress the black vote that is being recycled in the run-up to Election Day.”
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