North Carolina faces lawsuits over long voting lines and last-minute voter purges

The NAACP is threatening to sue over alleged voter suppression.

People line up for early voting at Chavis Community Center in Raleigh, N.C. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerry Broome
People line up for early voting at Chavis Community Center in Raleigh, N.C. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerry Broome

The North Carolina conference of the NAACP is threatening the state with lawsuits after reports poured in about hours-long early voting lines and the improper removal of elderly voters from the rolls less than two weeks before Election Day.

“We will invoke legal action if necessary to stop this runaway train,” North Carolina NAACP President Rev. Dr. William Barber told reporters on a conference call.

Attorney Penda Hair, who is representing the North Carolina NAACP, added that in her view, the state is engaging in various illegal practices designed to make it more difficult for people to vote.

“Voter suppression comes in many forms,” she said. “It comes in voter ID laws. It comes in trying to take away same day registration. But it also comes in the creation of long lines.”

Hair pointed to the North Carolina counties that drastically reduced the number of polling places available in the first week of early voting. Guilford County, for example, went from having 16 early voting locations in 2012 to just one this year. Because of those cutbacks, voters had to wait several hours to cast a ballot. Turnout in Guilford County over the first few days of early voting was down 85 percent. Six counties across the state that cut polling locations saw turnout drop by at least 50 percent.

“We have received multiple reports of voters being forced to abandon their place in line because the wait was too long, or to turn back after catching a view of the long lines from their cars,” the NAACP wrote to the state Board of Elections. “We fear that the wait times that voters have already endured during these first several days of early voting foretell of an untenable situation on Election Day that will leave voters disenfranchised.”

The reduction was especially difficult for students at North Carolina A&T State University, a historically black college. In 2008 and 2012, they had an early voting location directly on campus in the first week of early voting. This year, the sole location was a mile away.

“That presented some added impediment,” A&T Political Science professor Derek Smith told reporters. “But the real issue is that when you got down there, you had to wait two and a half hours. That’s just crazy.”

Though the county opened 24 more polling locations on Thursday, and finally voting tallies are not yet known, Smith said of his community: “We’ve probably been suppressed at a grand level.”

“We’ve probably been suppressed at a grand level.”

The NAACP is also raising alarm about three North Carolina counties — Beaufort, Cumberland, and Moore — removing voters from the rolls. The state is violating the National Voter Registration Act, the NAACP claims.

The group highlighted the case of Grace Harrison, a 100-year-old resident of Belhaven, North Carolina who has voted consistently for decades. Harrison was officially challenged before the Beaufort County Board of Elections because a piece of mail sent to her address bounced back. The board demanded she and more than 100 other voters in the county — the vast majority of them African American registered Democrats — attend an in-person hearing to defend their right to vote.

“She can’t get around without help,” her nephew Greg Sattherwaite told reporters. “She’s voted for the past 24 years and she loves to vote. It’s ridiculous they would challenge folks they this who they know are legitimate voters.”

Though the case against Harrison was dropped after local outcry, Sattherwaite said the experience had a negative psychological effect on his elderly aunt, who keeps asking him to reassure her that she can vote this November. Others in Beaufort, Cumberland, and Moore have been dropped from the voting rolls, or are still facing challenges to their eligibility.

“The process itself is burdensome and intimidating for voters,” said Hair, the attorney representing the NAACP. “The real voter fraud is this election is the voter suppression that’s particularly targeted to communities of color.”

Hair is demanding the state put all voters challenged since 2012 using this process back on the rolls immediately and allow them to cast regular ballots. The NAACP has threatened to sue if the state does not comply.

“You can’t challenge voters based on one piece of returned mail. You have to give them more opportunities to respond,” she said. “The [National Voter Registration Act] also bans removing voters in the last 90 days before the election, but here we have a state removing voters after voting has already started, when it’s too late for them to be able to effectively correct any mistakes. It puts the burden on the voter, who may not even know they’ve been challenged.”

Many of North Carolina’s voting laws — including a strict voter ID law, a large reduction in early voting days, and the elimination of same-day voter registration — were struck down by a federal court earlier this year, after judges reviewed evidence that the state passed the laws in order to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”