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A few thousand ballots could decide the fate of voting rights in North Carolina

“If you don’t think that every single vote matters, look at North Carolina.”

Only a few thousand votes separate Democrat challenger Roy Cooper (left) from Republican Gov. Pat McCrory (right) CREDIT: AP Photo/Adam Peck
Only a few thousand votes separate Democrat challenger Roy Cooper (left) from Republican Gov. Pat McCrory (right) CREDIT: AP Photo/Adam Peck

A full week after the election, tens of thousands of ballots are still being counted in the key swing state of North Carolina. Though Donald Trump won the state’s 15 electoral college votes, Democrats eked out wins in the governor’s race, the attorney general’s race, and control of the state Supreme Court. Yet due to extremely narrow margin of victory in the governor’s race, Republicans are contesting the results, leaving a cloud of uncertainty over the state.

Flipping all three offices could have a major impact on the future of voting rights in the southern swing state. The party that holds the governor’s seat controls the state Board of Elections and the local boards of elections in every one of North Carolina’s 100 counties.

This year, when these seats were controlled by Republicans, many county boards voted to slash early voting hours and the number of early voting polling sites, after a memo from the state GOP told them that doing so would help the party. African American residents disproportionately depend on early voting, and due in part to these cuts, black turnout dropped 9 percent. Even before that, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill — later ruled unconstitutional — that courts found was written with the intent to suppress African-American voters “with almost surgical precision.”

Progressives in the state, like Rev. Dr. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, say they hope unseating Governor McCrory will mean a reversal of these trends. During a visit to Capitol Hill, Barber told ThinkProgress that civil rights groups now have hope of enacting policies that make voting more accessible.

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“We have to make sure that we never have another election where we have fewer polling places than the year before,” he said. “We also need Sunday voting in every county.”

North Carolina NAACP president, Rev. William Barber. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber
North Carolina NAACP president, Rev. William Barber. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

Yet Democratic challenger Roy Cooper’s victory over McCrory hangs by a thread of fewer than 6,000 votes, and the Republican incumbent is not going down quietly. His campaign filed complaints in 11 counties this week alleging voter fraud. His evidence: One analyst hired by Republicans found similar handwriting on mail-in absentee ballots.

Meanwhile, more than 60,000 provision ballots have yet to be counted, and the State Board of Elections may not certify the results until November 29.

“If you don’t think that every single vote matters, look at North Carolina,” Barber said. “We have an average of just 50 votes per county that is the difference between a governor who signed off on voter suppression versus a governor who is for every person having access to the ballot.”

Barber added that unless voting rights groups prevail next year in a lawsuit against the state’s racially and politically gerrymandered district maps, Democrats will have no chance of regaining control of the state legislature, where Republicans currently enjoy a supermajority.

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“Right now we can’t touch them, because they’re in such isolated, gerrymandered districts,” Barber told ThinkProgress. “It serves as a pseudo- Electoral College. You can have a majority of progressives voting, but you’re still not going to change the legislatures.”

Though North Carolina’s popular vote has been split nearly evenly between the Republican and Democratic parties in recent elections, Republicans hold the vast majority of seats in the state assembly. This is due, in part, because they drew their own district maps so that African American voters are grouped into small, oddly shaped districts that make the surrounding districts whiter and easier for Republicans to win.

“That kind of stacking, packing, bleaching, and washing is just unconstitutional, and now we have a chance to set that right,” Barber said.

A panel of federal judges declared the maps unconstitutional in August, and the Supreme Court will decide their fate next year.