A Judge Blocked North Carolina’s Plan To Suppress Black Voters. The GOP Found A Way To Do It Anyway.

Demonstrators march through the streets of Winston-Salem, N.C. after the beginning of a federal voting rights trial. CREDIT: AP Photo/Chuck Burton
Demonstrators march through the streets of Winston-Salem, N.C. after the beginning of a federal voting rights trial. CREDIT: AP Photo/Chuck Burton

A federal court recently struck down North Carolina’s attempt to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision” by eliminating a full week of early voting, among other changes. But the state has found a new way to get around the ruling and impose the same restrictions.

County by county, many election boards controlled by the GOP have voted over the past week to cut both early voting hours and locations, specifically targeting the places and times most used by students and people of color.

A memo uncovered last week from the state GOP to its county members instructed them to pursue “party line changes to early voting,” including the elimination of Sunday voting — which is heavily used by African Americans — and early voting sites on college campuses.

“Our Republican Board members should feel empowered to make legal changes to early voting plans,” the memo insisted.

Republican-controlled county boards across the state have been following this advice. Mecklenburg County voted last week to offer 238 fewer hours of early voting than they did in 2012. New Hanover County voted to eliminate Sunday voting, even though they provided it during the primary election in March. Cumberland County is seeking to get rid of both Sunday voting and a voting site on the campus of Fayetteville State University, a historically black school. Guilford County, the home of Greensboro, considered but ultimately rejected a plan to cut Sunday voting and slash the number of early voting locations in half. One of the shuttered sites would have been on the campus of the historically black North Carolina A&T State University.

Bob Hall with the voting rights organization Democracy North Carolina told ThinkProgress that he sees this wave of actions as “mischief and chicanery” on the part of the state’s Republicans.

“They lost the fight at the state policy level. Now they’re going to the local level, county by county, and attempting to rig the election,” he said. “Essentially, they’re trying to disadvantage voters they don’t like.”

“They’re trying to disadvantage voters they don’t like.”

North Carolinians of color overwhelmingly vote for Democratic candidates. The NAACP and other civil rights groups have argued in court that the legislature passed the statewide early voting cuts and other restrictions with the specific intent of suppressing the votes of African Americans unlikely to support the GOP.

Federal courts agreed. In striking down the law, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said it was a perfect example of “the inevitable tendency of elected officials to entrench themselves by targeting groups unlikely to vote for them.”

Before passing the law, the court discovered, North Carolina’s Republican lawmakers “requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices.” They then wrote a bill that eliminated only the practices used most by non-white voters, including same-day registration, straight-ticket voting, out-of-precinct voting, and early voting, particularly on Sundays.

Now, the civil rights groups that successfully defeated these changes on the state level are struggling to monitor the election boards in each of North Carolina’s 100 counties, all of whom have to submit a plan to the state Board of Elections by Wednesday at midnight.

In dozens of counties, Democrats who disagree with the plan put forward by Republicans will submit their own competing plans. Even after the state evaluates and approves the county plans, more lawsuits could ensue.

With the election just a few months away, North Carolina’s swing state status raises the stakes for any voting law changes. Fewer than 14,000 voters won the state for President Obama in 2008. Senator Thom Tillis (R) won his seat by fewer than 50,000 voters, handing control of the U.S. Senate to the GOP.

Current polling finds Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton nearly tied, and both the state’s Republican Governor Pat McCrory and Senator Richard Burr could lose by just a few percentage points to their Democratic challengers. The ease of voting in a few key counties could be enough to tip the scales.

Hall told ThinkProgress that he is concerned that the counties pursuing cuts could see long lines on election day that deter some people from participating.

“Our whole system relies on strong early voting,” he said. “Almost half of the voters in the state live in super-sized precincts, with over 3,000 voters, and they have just one polling place on election day. As long as we have strong early voting, the lines are not intolerably long. But if you have a lousy early voting plan, you’re jamming up people on Election Day.”