As Urged by SCSJ, North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement Directs AG’s Office to Move to Quash Overbroad ICE Subpoenas

RALEIGH, N.C. – Today, the North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement unanimously agreed to direct the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office to take all necessary steps to quash the vague, burdensome and potentially illegal subpoenas that the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern North Carolina served in the last week on the State Board and 44 county boards of elections.

Yesterday, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) submitted to the State Board and its staff an extensive legal memo (http://bit.ly/SubpoenaMemo) providing analysis in support of a move to quash the subpoenas. The State Board also received a supplemental letter from Assistant U.S. Attorney Sebastian Kielmanovich (https://www.scribd.com/document/388011810/Subpoena-Response-US-Attorney#from_embed) offering to retract the original request for cast ballots, which did not fundamentally alter the legal and ethical problems associated with the unprecedented scope of the original subpoenas.

“We commend the State Board for taking steps to defend the privacy interests of North Carolina voters and to prevent likely unlawful fishing expeditions by the federal government that tends to fuel voter suppression and intimidation efforts,” said Allison Riggs, Senior Voting Rights Attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “North Carolina’s voters can participate in this election with confidence that their State Board of Elections will not shrink from their duty to protect the secrecy of their ballots. And we genuinely hope that the Department of Justice and ICE will get the message that we will not allow anyone to declare open season on North Carolina voters.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Subpoenas Local Election Boards for Troves of Information in Apparent Fishing Expedition, Undermining 2018 Election Administration

 

 

RALEIGH, N.C.– Assistant U.S. Attorney Sebastian Kielmanovich recently issued subpoenas to Boards of Elections in all 44 counties in North Carolina’s Federal Eastern District on behalf of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  While the exact timing of the issuance of the subpoenas is not clear, they became public knowledge on September 4 after an email was sent to all members of the local boards and redacted subpoena language was posted to Twitter.

 

The subpoenas seek “all poll books, e-poll books, voting records, and/or voter authorization documents, executed official ballots that were submitted to, filed by, received by, and/or maintained by” the local board of elections “from August 30, 2013 to August 30, 2018.”  See: http://bit.ly/ICEAttachment

 

“The timing and scope of these subpoenas from ICE raise very troubling questions about the necessity and wisdom of federal interference with the pending statewide elections,” said Kareem Crayton, Interim Executive Director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.  “With so many well-established threats to our election process from abroad, it is odd to see federal resources directed to this particular concern.  We are closely monitoring the handling of these subpoenas and will keep all legal options on the table to ensure that communities in our state enjoy an election process free from meddling and intimidation.”

 

This is part of a pattern in North Carolina.  On August 17, 2018, the Department of Justice announced federal prosecutions of nineteen individuals in the Eastern District alleged to have voted while ineligible. Both the prosecutions and the new federal subpoenas come after a number of counties in the state decided not to prosecute ineligible voters who voted in the 2016 election.  Most of those instances included voters who were ineligible due to the fact that they were still technically serving an active felony sentence by being on probation or parole, and these voters did not realize they were still ineligible to vote.  Despite most counties declining to prosecute cases because of the lack of nefarious intent on the part of the voters, the State Board of Elections & Ethics enforcement is still referring cases of ineligible voters in the 2016 election to district attorneys for prosecution.

 

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) represented five citizens in Alamance County who were charged with voting while ineligible due to an active felony sentence.  All of those cases resulted in misdemeanor pleas deals that included no admission of guilt and the dismissal of the voting-related charges.  SCSJ is concerned that the efforts in North Carolina to criminalize the ballot box and drum up evidence of “voter fraud” may be replicated on a much larger scale.

 

“This is clearly a fishing expedition that picks up where the Pence-Kobach Commission stopped.  This administration appears to be outsourcing the Commission’s discredited agenda to U.S. Attorneys, thus wasting our local election administrators’ valuable time and resources, many of which had been focused on ensuring our upcoming elections are free from foreign interference,” said Allison Riggs, Senior Voting Rights Attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “It’s ironic, and clearly a political exercise, that an administration that has benefited from foreign election interference is now seeking to burden local election administrators in a way that will impede them in their efforts to safeguard against that same interference in the upcoming election.”

 

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Plaintiffs Victory in Partisan Gerrymandering Case Shifts Focus Back to Supreme Court

The Supreme Court could hear case in the 2018-19 term in time for new maps in 2020

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, a three-judge panel in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina reaffirmed its decision from January striking down the state’s congressional map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.  The decision in League of Women Voters of North Carolina v. Rucho was issued after the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to the district court to consider whether or not the plaintiffs had standing to bring the case.  In today’s decision, the lower court confirmed that in the consolidated cases, plaintiffs have standing to challenge each of the 13 congressional districts.  It is expected that today’s decision will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could hear the case in the upcoming term that begins in October.

Today’s opinion can be found at http://bit.ly/PartisanGerrymanderingNC

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ), Campaign Legal Center (CLC), and University of Chicago Professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos represent the League of Women Voters of North Carolina and 12 individual North Carolina plaintiffs.

“Once again, a bipartisan panel of judges agree that the legislature went too far in its efforts to gerrymander election districts in a way that discriminates against voters based on their political beliefs and predetermines the outcome of elections before a single vote is cast,”said Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “Elections should have consequences.  Unfortunately, every congressional election in North Carolina so far this decade has deprived the voters of the ability to hold elected officials accountable through the democratic process.  The court recognized that such actions are unconstitutional.  The people of North Carolina deserve better.”

Should the case be heard this term, as expected, North Carolina voters could have fair and legal maps drawn in time to be used in the 2020 elections. The case has the potential to reshape future redistricting nationwide by limiting politicians’ ability to discriminate against voters who favor a minority party as those politicians control the process of drawing electoral districts.

“North Carolina has had one of the most severely gerrymandered maps in modern American history for almost a full decade, and it can no longer stand,” said Ruth Greenwood, senior legal counsel, voting rights and redistricting at CLC. “This fall, North Carolina voters are about to endure their fourth election cycle with a blatantly gerrymandered congressional map. Given the timing, we expect the Supreme Court to hear this case in the upcoming 2018-2019 term. Our clients in North Carolina are ready for a ruling from the Supreme Court that finally declares that voters, not lawmakers, come first.”

A companion case, brought by lead plaintiff Common Cause and others, also moves forward with today’s decision.  The earlier findings by the district court as to the violation of the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights were also reiterated today.

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Statement Regarding Alamance County Voters Accused of Voting While Ineligible

GRAHAM, N.C. – Five voters represented by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) charged with voting while ineligible accepted plea deals to lesser charges in Alamance County Superior Court today.  As part of the deal, prosecutors dropped all felony voting-related charges.

SCSJ clients Anthony Haith, Neko Rogers, Whitney Brown, Keith Sellars and Willie Vinson, Jr. pled to a lesser charge – misdemeanor obstruction of justice.  As part of the plea, the five individuals will each complete 24 hours of community service, be placed on unsupervised probation for 12 months, and offer no admission of guilt to any voting-related charges.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice issued the following statement after the pleas deals were accepted by the court:

“Our clients had to make a hard decision.  They believe that the law they were initially charged under was enacted in 1901 with an intent to discriminate against people of color and intimidate communities from voting.  Such a law is unconstitutional.

“What happened in the courtroom today is nothing new, though.  Far too often, people plead to lesser charges, even when justice is on their side, in order to avoid the possibility of facing time in prison, being separated from their families, losing their jobs, and disrupting their lives and the lives of those around them.  Similar events happen every day in courtrooms across the country.

“Our communities deserve better.  No one should have to face the possibility of prison time for the act of casting a vote that they believed they were eligible to cast. These charges sought to punish people whose only intent was to participate in our democracy.  All of the charges should have been dismissed and the law that led to these prosecutions should be deemed unconstitutional.”

U.S. Supreme Court Again Sides with Plaintiffs Who Brought Racial Gerrymandering Challenge

Most of the court-ordered plan that includes Special Master’s districts to remain in place

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Supreme Court issued a per curiam decision today, largely affirming a lower court’s ruling in North Carolina v. Covington and upholding most of the court-ordered map with some districts redrawn by a Special Master. The court requested recommendations from a Special Master after plaintiffs successfully challenged the redistricting plan enacted by the state legislature in 2017 on the grounds that racially discriminatory districts still persisted.  The U.S. Supreme Court upheld those districts but held that the lower court did not need to determine whether other districts complied with the state constitution.

 

“Thanks to the dedication of the plaintiffs in this case, voters in North Carolina will finally be able to vote in state legislative districts drawn without unconstitutional racial discrimination,”  Allison Riggs, Senior Voting Rights Attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, who represents plaintiffs in the case.  “The order from the Supreme Court today sends the message loud and clear that discrimination, even if hidden under a self-proclaimed veil of ignorance, will not be tolerated in the redistricting process.  We’re glad to see the district court’s careful, well-documented findings on this front affirmed.”

 

Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, a three-judge panel for the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina found that the 2011 redistricting plan contained 28 racial gerrymanders among its state House and Senate districts.

 

After plaintiffs raised concerns about the remedy redistricting plan enacted by the state legislature in 2017, the three-judge panel appointed an expert Special Master to alter nine state legislative districts the Court identified that failed to adequately remedy the racial discrimination or otherwise violated the state constitution.  The Special Master’s recommendations were incorporated into the state redistricting plan ordered to be enacted by the three-judge panel.

 

On February 6, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block the district court’s order. However, the Supreme Court did stay revisions to a small number of districts that violate the state constitution, however.  The districts redrawn by the Special Master to correct racial gerrymandering concerns are in effect for the 2018 state legislative elections.

 

“While it’s unfortunate that this process has dragged on for almost the entirety of the decade–to the great detriment of voters in this state–we’re gratified to be vindicated once again,” stated Allison Riggs. “We’re certain the state courts will correct the state constitutional violations before the 2020 elections, as we already have the trial court in NAACP v. Lewis finding that we are likely to succeed on the merits, but importantly, we have finally achieved our clients’ goals for this litigation: to eradicate the blatantly unconstitutional sorting of voters by race in North Carolina’s state legislative districts.”

 

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice, along with the Poyner Spruill law firm, represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

 

 

Background about this case:

 

On June 5, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court summarily affirmed a lower court’s decision in Covington v. North Carolina that 28 of North Carolina’s state legislative districts are racial gerrymanders.  The decision was issued “per curiam,” meaning by a unanimous decision of the Court. The ruling came two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court found two of the state’s congressional districts were also racial gerrymanders.

 

On July 31, 2017, North Carolina’s Middle District Court ordered the North Carolina General Assembly to redraw legislative maps by September 1, 2017, in order to remedy the unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.  The legislature adopted new maps on August 30, 2017.

 

Plaintiffs filed objections to the newly drawn district plans and a hearing was held in front of a three-judge panel in the Middle District of North Carolina on October 12, 2017.

 

On October 26, 2017, the federal panel announced its intention to appoint Dr. Nathaniel Persily to the position of “Special Master” to review the newly adopted redistricting plan and make recommendations to ensure compliance with state and federal law in a few areas of the map where the Court believed the remedial plan was inadequate or otherwise illegal.  Dr. Persily’s appointment became official on November 1, 2017.

 

Dr. Persily issued draft recommended changes to the state’s redistricting plan on November 13, 2017, and solicited feedback from the plaintiffs and defendants.  Both submitted comments.

 

Meeting the deadline set by the three-judge panel, Dr. Persily submitted his final set of recommendations to the district court on December 1, 2017.

 

The three-judge panel heard arguments from the plaintiffs and defendants regarding the Special Master’s plan on January 5, 2018.

 

On January 19, 2018, the three-judge panel ordered that the Special Master’s recommendations be incorporated into the state’s state legislative redistricting plan.

 

On February 6, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block the district court’s order. However, the Supreme Court did stay revisions to a small number of districts that violate the state constitution, however.

 

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U.S. Supreme Court Partisan Gerrymandering Ruling’s Impact on North Carolina

WASHINGTON D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court issued opinions on June 18, 2018, in two partisan gerrymandering cases, Gill v. Whitford (Wisconsin) and Besinek v. Lamone (Maryland). The Wisconsin case has been sent back down to the district court to reconsider issues related to standing. The ruling in the Maryland case affirmed the denial of a preliminary injunction of a district map before an upcoming election. Both of the rulings can be found at https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/slipopinion/17

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice and the Campaign Legal Center represent plaintiffs in the North Carolina partisan gerrymandering case that has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In that case, League of Women Voters of North Carolina v. Rucho (which has been combined with Common Cause v. Rucho), a federal three-judge panel found the state’s U.S. Congressional plan to be an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander in January 2018 on multiple legal theories of injury.

Allison Riggs, Senior Voting Rights Attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, issued the following statement after the U.S. Supreme Court issued the opinion in Gill v. Whitford:

“The U.S. Supreme Court did not define any standard today that would be applicable to determining the merits of a partisan gerrymandering claim. Today’s opinions were largely procedural and indicate the Court’s desire to keep the door open for further discussion about partisan gerrymandering. Multiple statements in the opinions indicate that this practice, when it becomes egregious and discriminatory, crosses the line to become unconstitutional.”

“North Carolina remains the most crystal clear example of why a rule creating limits on partisan gerrymandering is so necessary. The record evidence of constitutional injury presented in our case is overwhelming–legislators intentionally cracked and packed millions of North Carolina voters to silence their political voice. We look forward to the opportunity to argue our case on the merits before the U.S. Supreme Court, where we do not have the same procedural issues that prevented a substantive ruling in the cases decided today.”

Paul Smith, vice president of litigation and strategy at Campaign Legal Center (CLC) who argued Whitford v. Gill at the U.S. Supreme Court, issued the following statement about the Whitford decision after today’s ruling:

“When legislators draw voting maps to favor one party over another and to stay in power, voters no longer have a voice in the political process. Extreme partisan gerrymandering is increasingly getting worse – damaging our democracy and eroding voters’ confidence in our system. We will continue advancing efforts, in this case and others as well as through the political process, to end this practice and safeguard every citizen’s fundamental right to vote and have it count.”

 

More about the League of Women Voters of North Carolina v. Rucho:

Like in Whitford v.Gill, plaintiffs in the North Carolina partisan gerrymandering case asked for the same standard to be adopted in their initial complaint filing in September 2016.

Specifically, plaintiffs asked for a three-pronged analysis to determine when partisan discrimination in the redistricting is unconstitutional. That analysis involves a three-part test: (1) showing discriminatory intent; (2) showing discriminatory effect, which can be shown through the use of a measure called the efficiency gap; and (3) showing a map’s imbalance is not justified by a state’s political geography or legitimate redistricting objectives.

In January 2018, a three-judge panel in North Carolina’s Middle District federal court North Carolina’s 2016 Congressional Plan that was adopted in February 2016 violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. It does so by burdening voters’ freedom of speech and freedom to associate based on their political beliefs, as well as, by treating voters unequally by diluting the electoral influence of one party’s supporters.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay in the North Carolina case in January 2018. The lower court’s ruling was put on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court considered Whitford v. Gill and Benisek v. Lamone, a partisan gerrymandering case from Maryland.

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SCSJ Condemns Reduction in Weekend Early Voting Opportunities, Calls for Veto of Changes

Changes target voting options preferred by African-American voters

RALEIGH, N.C. – With the passage of SB 325, the North Carolina General Assembly has approved changes to the state’s early voting procedures whose limitations would likely disproportionately affect African American voters and put greater strain on election resources in rural communities.  The bill mandates that early voting periods end on the Friday before an election, eliminating early voting opportunities on the Saturday before an election — a day on which hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians have cast their ballots in previous elections. It also requires voting sites in a county to have uniform hours — so all sites must be open if any are open, regardless of the frequency of their use.

“We all know — and the legislature knows — that African-American voters make use of the last Saturday of early voting more than other groups,” said Allison Riggs, Senior Voting Rights Attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “We’ve endured this outrageous song and dance before.  Efforts to dilute or undermine the voting strength of African Americans are illegal and undemocratic.  We strongly urge Gov. Cooper to veto this bill.”

In 2014, the most recent midterm election, 103,513 voters — almost 1 in 10 early voters (9.41%) — cast their ballots on the last Saturday of early voting.  In 2016, African American voters, who made up 20.6% of voters in the 2016 general election, accounted for 28.9% of voters on the last Saturday or early voting.

Another provision in the bill requires that any time one early voting site in a county is open, all other early voting sites in that county must also be open. This rigid rule is blind to the facts on the ground and is likely to create a strain on election officials.  Its application can make it prohibitively expensive for officials to offer weekend early voting access and to open an adequate number of early voting sites in a county.  

Local election boards use varied hours to maximize resources and open voting sites in areas and at times that make sense for their communities.  In the 2018 primary, 46 counties offered varied times at satellite sites during early voting in response to demand.  In 2014, the most recent midterm election, 55 counties took advantage of the flexibility provided by the current statute.

“Local election boards and advocates working with their local boards often know best how to make sure their community members have opportunities to vote.  For rural counties in particular, mandating the expensive task of running every county site throughout early voting will lead to fewer early voting locations,” said Riggs.  “Despite the efforts to muddy the water with specious  claims about the need for uniformity, it’s clear that this bill achieves one thing and one thing only: making it harder to for North Carolinians to vote.  Gov. Cooper should demand that voting remains easily accessible for all voters and veto this bill.”

To read the bill language, click here.

SCSJ challenges NC law that punishes returning citizens with felonies for voting while ineligible

On June 8, 2018, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice filed motions to dismiss on behalf of five clients in Alamance County who were charged with voting while being ineligible due to a criminal conviction.   

In our the motions, SCSJ asks the court to recognize the unconstitutionality of the criminal statute that allows the state to seek a felony conviction against a person who casts a vote in a primary or general election before that person has completed probation and returned to full citizenship. As stated in the motion, the statute (N.C.G.S. § 163-275(5)) “violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, § 19 of the North Carolina Constitution, in that the crime was created on the basis of racial animus with the specific purpose to suppress the votes of African Americans in North Carolina, and it continues to have a disparate impact on the basis of race.” (Motion to Dismiss on behalf of Whitney Brown, p.1).

The full motion can be read at  http://bit.ly/AlamanceMotiontoDismiss

 

On the origins of the crime

Under current North Carolina law, a person who engages in voter intimidation or breaks up an election “by force or violence” commits a mere misdemeanor. However, a person who casts a single vote before being returned to full citizenship commits a felony subject to up to two years of imprisonment. Our state criminal laws have maintained this backward distinction for over a century, because our statutes criminalizing voting have been re-codified virtually unchanged since they were enacted by an openly racist legislature that came to power through voter intimidation and promises to strip the vote from African Americans by all available means.

 Prior to 1900, North Carolina’s Constitution did not expressly exclude those previously convicted of felonies from the right of suffrage. The state also had no poll tax or literacy test. All of this changed with the Suffrage Amendment ratified in 1900 and the general election law passed the following year. These changes to state law, which included the enactment of the statute under which Ms. Brown has been charged came after an open campaign to disenfranchise an emergent African American electorate and install White Supremacy in North Carolina.

In its 1898 party handbook, the Democratic Party estimated with alarm that a third of this state’s 360,000 votes were cast by African Americans. The handbook declared that it was “the special mission of the Democratic Party to rescue the white people of the east from negro domination.” Among the evils the party claimed it needed to guard against was the threat of African Americans registering those who were ineligible due to criminal convictions. This was seen as a particular threat because African Americans “had not those qualities of easy identification which the white man possesses” and had a “roving disposition.”

There was widespread voter intimidation during the electoral campaign of 1898. Bands of armed men known as Red Shirts rode on horseback through African American communities, particularly in southeastern North Carolina, to intimidate voters. The strategy worked, and the Democrats captured complete control of the General Assembly. The new legislature changed the state constitution, restricted the right to vote, and defined several “infamous crimes” based on casting an illegal vote.

In 1900, the General Assembly ratified a Suffrage Amendment to the state constitution that add a restriction specifically prohibiting those convicted of certain crimes from voting unless they “restored to citizenship.” The same amendment instituted both the literacy test and poll tax. The literacy test contained an exemption for the descendants of any person who was eligible to vote on or prior to January 1, 1867 – exempting White citizens who could vote in the time of slavery.

After passage of the Suffrage Amendment, the General Assembly ratified an elections law that provided detailed regulations regarding the literacy test and other voter suppression devices. The 1901 law also defined several voting crimes, including the this one:

Sec. 71 If any person be challenged as being convicted of any crime which excludes him from the right of suffrage, he shall be required to answer any question in relation to such alleged conviction; but his answer to such questions shall not be used against him in any criminal prosecution, but if any person so convicted shall vote at the election, without having been restored to the right of citizenship, he shall be guilty of an infamous crime, and punished by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, or imprisoned at hard labor, not exceeding two years, or both.

The act also made it an “infamous crime” to knowingly register in the wrong location or to “illegally vote” in any election.  At the same time, the act made it a misdemeanor to break up an election “by force and violence” or to “injure, threaten, oppress or attempt to intimidate any qualified voter of this State.” This dichotomy, in which voter intimidation constitutes a misdemeanor while casting a vote improperly is a felony, persists in North Carolina law in 2018.

Since its enactment in 1901, the only tweak to the language of the crime at issue in this case came in 1931, when the General Assembly made the wording more concise and replaced the term “infamous crime” with “felony.” From 1931 to the present, not one syllable of the definition of the crime of voting while ineligible due to a prior criminal conviction has changed. Along with the other surviving felonies from the 1901 law, the crime of voting while ineligible due to a prior criminal conviction has become a Class I felony under North Carolina Structured Sentencing. A conviction can result in as much as two years’ imprisonment. N.C.G.S. § 15A-1340.17.

 

On the continued disparate impact

The racially disparate impact of the law criminalizing voting before restoration of full citizenship after a criminal conviction persists to this day. In 2016, African Americans were nearly 53% of the prison population in this state. In the same year, African Americans comprised an estimated 21.5% of the total population of North Carolina.  Thus, African Americans are more likely to be disfranchised as the result of felony convictions and thus more likely to unintentionally run afoul of § 163-275(5) (2016), which has no express requirement of knowledge or fraudulent intent.

The prosecution of Whitney Brown in Alamance County, as well as other returning citizens, follows the law’s long tradition of a racially disparate impact. On a statewide basis, people identified as “Black” in the voter registration records constituted 290 of the 411 persons listed in the State Board of Elections’ 2016 Audit Report as having allegedly voted in violated of § 163-275(5) – 68.08% of the total when those who did not designate their race are excluded. By contrast, people identified as “White” comprised only 30.75% of the total.

This stark disparity becomes even greater in Alamance County, where the State has indicted twelve individuals for the alleged act of voting in the 2016 general election in violation of N.C.G.S. § 163-275(5). Ms. Brown and eight others – 75% of those facing a possible felony conviction – are African American. The law imposing a potential felony conviction for the act of voting before returning to full citizenship after criminal conviction functions exactly as the 1901 General Assembly intended: as a tool to punish, suppress and discourage voting by African Americans.

The statute at issue, N.C.G.S. § 163-275(5) (2016), was enacted for the express purpose of disfranchising African American voters, and continues to have a disparate impact on African American voters both statewide and in Alamance County. The racially invidious application of this law renders it unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment and Article I, § 19 of the North Carolina constitution. 

 

SCSJ Statement Regarding Proposed North Carolina Voter ID Constitutional Amendment

RALEIGH, N.C. – On June 7, 2018, North Carolina Speaker of the House Rep. Tim Moore introduced HB 1092, a constitutional amendment that would require voters in the state to present photo identification before voting.  If the legislation passes both chambers of the General Assembly by a three-fifths margin, the amendment would go on the November ballot.
North Carolina held one election (the May 2016 primary) with a requirement for voters to show photo identification after the General Assembly passed HB 589 in 2013.  In that one election, many eligible North Carolina voters were unduly burdened and disenfranchised.
House Bill 589, including a photo identification requirement for voters, was struck down in July 2016 by the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  In its decision, the Fourth Circuit found that the law, which included other elections changed that would predominantly impact voters of color, was intended to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision” for exclusion from the political process.
After the introduction of HB 1092Allison Riggs, Senior Voting Rights Attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and the attorney who successfully argued the case against the 2013 Monster Voter Suppression Law in the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, issued the following statement:
“It’s unfortunate that legislators think that they can hide another unconstitutional voter suppression effort by putting it on the ballot as a constitutional amendment and trying to trick voters into doing their dirty work for them.  A federal court found their previous scheme to require photo ID and limit voting access were blatant attempts to disenfranchise voters of color.  What was filed today is no different.  This is an obvious effort to implement a policy that has been shot down as being racially discriminatory.”
“Just as when the legislature tried this in 2011 and 2013, we know that thousands of eligible North Carolina voters lack photo identification.  These voters are disproportionately voters of color, elderly voters, women, and voters with physical challenges.  The legislature continues to intend the effect of its voter suppression efforts–the exclusion of these groups of North Carolinians from accessing their fundamental right to vote.”
Scissors cutting red tape over a drivers license with city of Durham in background

Press Release: Civil Rights Groups Sue North Carolina DMV For Revoking Driver’s Licenses of People Who Cannot Pay Traffic Tickets

Taking licenses from people who cannot pay violates the U.S. Constitution, lawsuit says

RALEIGH, N.C. –The North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has revoked the licenses of hundreds of thousands of people simply because they cannot afford to pay traffic fines and court costs. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of North Carolina and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice are suing to end the practice, which funnels low-income people further into poverty, in violation of their  due process and equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The North Carolinians impacted by this punitive scheme are stripped of their ability to support themselves and their families, as drivers’ licenses are crucial to securing and maintaining employment, driving children to school, and obtaining basic needs. The federal lawsuit challenges the DMV’s automatic revocation of driver’s licenses without providing proper notice and hearings to ensure that people who cannot afford fines and costs will not lose their license.

“No one should have to live with the burden of their license being revoked, and all the expenses that come with that, simply because they don’t have any money,” Plaintiff Seti Johnson said. “I’d previously fallen behind on my rent and sacrificed the needs of my children just to keep my license. I cannot afford to do that again. This has to stop.”

The DMV’s unlawful license revocation stems from a North Carolina statute that requires the automatic revocation of licenses for nonpayment of a traffic ticket 40 days after a court judgment.  But the law does not require a hearing before revocation to ensure that a person punished under the statute is actually able to pay. U.S. Supreme Court precedent makes it clear that inability to pay must be considered before punishing a person for nonpayment of a court fine.

“I just want a fair chance to take care of my family,” Plaintiff Sharee Smoot added.  “I can’t afford to pay the tickets right now, but that shouldn’t prevent me from having a driver’s license.”

Sam Brooke, deputy legal director for the SPLC, said: “The North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles unconstitutionally punishes people by taking away their driver’s licenses simply because they cannot afford to pay their traffic tickets, without due process or any regard for their ability to pay. It’s predatory and puts thousands of individuals with low incomes at risk. A license permits physical mobility and enables economic transcendence. Taking licenses away from those most in need is not just illegal, it is also counterproductive and heartless. We are suing to end this unjust practice.”

More than 15 percent of North Carolina residents live in poverty. North Carolina’s practice of revoking licenses for nonpayment without ensuring ability to pay disproportionately harms people of color due to longstanding racial and ethnic gaps in poverty and wealth.

“North Carolina’s unjust traffic fine collection scheme has created a two-tiered system of justice where people charged with the same traffic offense are punished differently based on how much money they have,” said Cristina Becker, criminal justice debt fellow for the ACLU of North Carolina. “Those who can afford to pay their traffic tickets get to keep their license, while those who cannot have their license revoked, making it harder to find and keep a job and take care of their families. North Carolina is denying a basic necessity – having a driver’s license – to hundreds of thousands of residents simply because of their economic standing, trapping countless people in a cycle of poverty. This unfair and unconstitutional system must end.”

Laura Holland, criminal justice attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said: “The consequences of losing a driver’s license can be devastating for low-income families in North Carolina. People facing fines for a traffic offense, with low or no income, are often forced to choose between paying fines to prevent their licenses from being revoked or using that money for food, housing and health care. When a person whose license is revoked cannot afford to pay, they are faced with a choice between losing their jobs because they no longer have a license to drive to work, or driving with a revoked license and risking further penalties.”

When the DMV receives notice that a person has not paid a traffic fine or cost, it enters a license revocation order that becomes effective 60 days after mailing or personal delivery to the motorist. The notice does not explain that, if a motorist cannot pay, they can petition for a hearing to keep their license. The notice indicates that the only way to restore a revoked license is to pay all outstanding traffic fines and court costs in full.

Johnson, a Black father of three, had to choose between paying traffic fines and supporting his children. After a routine traffic stop last summer in Cabarrus County, he was surprised to learn that his license had been revoked for unpaid traffic tickets. He was forced to use his rent money to pay off the more than $700 he owed to reinstate his license.

Johnson’s license was reinstated, but not before he received a separate traffic ticket for driving with a revoked license. The charge was later reduced, and the court ordered him to pay a $100 fine and $208 in court costs. He was able to pay $100, but couldn’t pay more, and was assessed an additional $20 fee because he couldn’t pay in full that day. Without a job, he struggled to pay the remaining amount. The fees were due on May 22, and Johnson fears that he will lose his license again.

Smoot is a single Black mother struggling to support her daughter on a low income. She lost her driver’s license in 2016 when she could not afford to pay a traffic fine. Every day, she faces an impossible choice between driving illegally to work and losing her job.

The plaintiffs seek a court order declaring that North Carolina’s law and the DMV’s practice of revoking driver’s licenses are unconstitutional. The plaintiffs also seek an injunction to prevent the DMV from revoking licenses for nonpayment without first providing hearings to determine whether motorists willfully did not pay. They also seek to prevent the DMV from revoking licenses without sufficient notice of options other than payment, to prevent those who cannot afford to pay from having their licenses revoked. The suit also requests an injunction that would require the DMV to restore any licenses that were revoked solely for nonpayment.

To read the official filing, click on the following link: https://www.southerncoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/nc_drivers_license_complaint.pdf