The path forward: Debate over voting rights to remain contentious; “Raise the age,” technological advances face smoother sailing

The path forward: Debate over voting rights to remain contentious; “Raise the age,” technological advances face smoother sailing

North Carolina residents know well what happens when a politician throws around claims of voter fraud without actually verifying the validity of such notions.

When former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory was losing during the last election, his team took extreme measures and latched on to any allegation of voter fraud researchers could dig up.

GOP lawyers recruited residents from 52 of North Carolina’s 100 counties to file election protests against individuals accused of voting with a felony, voting in a deceased person’s name or voting in multiple states. Only a handful of those claims were found to be substantive and most were tossed out by the State Board of Elections.

McCrory ultimately conceded but left a trail of innocent people publicly accused of felonies in his wake and, according to many media outlets, tarnished his reputation in the process.

Now, North Carolinians are hearing similar cries of voter fraud – but this time on a much larger scale and from someone with a lot more power, President Donald Trump.

Trump claimed in January that there were 3 million to 5 million illegal votes cast in the 2016 presidential election and that it cost him the popular vote. Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, Trump also tweeted that he would ask for a “major investigation” into his claims.

“It is so troubling to see someone in such a position of power making these kinds of assertions because there is a history of politicians drumming up unfounded fear of fraud and using that as a cover for putting more restrictive voting laws into place,” said Jennifer Clark, counsel in the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program.

Last summer, a federal appeals court struck down North Carolina’s voter ID law. A few months later, in response to McCrory’s claims of voter fraud, House Speaker Tim Moore said the legislature could revisit voter ID requirements and other election laws this session.

He also said that GOP legislators still supported the voter ID law that was struck down, despite a judge writing that the legislation targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision.”

Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger did not respond to requests for comment regarding voter law plans this session.

There is concern that Trump’s claims will only be fuel for the fire in North Carolina and give legislators one more excuse to pass more restrictive voting laws.

Clark said politicians should take heed of “a real sea change among the courts” before proceeding with such legislation.

There was a big wave of decisions over the summer in places like North Carolina, Wisconsin and North Dakota, where court decisions came down on the side of the voter and against restrictive measures, she said. The courts found that the restrictive legislation was either passed with the intent to discriminate against minority voters or at the least had the effect of doing that, she added.

“After a wave of restrictive measures, we’re finally seeing courts push back, so I would say that expending legislative energy on something that is pretty much universally in the courts being rolled back would likely be a huge waste of time, even putting aside the disenfranchising factor and whether it’s good policy,” Clark reiterated. “It would just be sort of useless in the face of these court decisions which have all really been coming down on the side of the voter.”

The voter ID law that was struck down is currently on appeal at the U.S. Supreme Court, and likely won’t be taken up until the next sitting.

Election Law Blog’s Rick Hasen said one thing that could change with regard to the law’s path forward is that the Department of Justice under Trump’s administration could change its position to be in favor of such restrictive measures.

“Anytime the U.S. weighs in on an issue at the Supreme Court, the justices take that very seriously,” he said.

He also spoke recently with Slate about his predictions for voting rights in general under the new administration.

“The Department of Justice under new attorney general Jeff Sessions will reverse his department’s challenges to the legality of Texas’ voter ID law and North Carolina’s law making it harder to register and to vote, leading more Republican states to adopt similar restrictive laws even before the Supreme Court may weigh in on these issues,” he said in the article.

Hasen also been outspoken on his blog and on social media about Trump’s false voter fraud claims and the consequences it could have on voting rights.

Less contentious legislative issues

Advocates and public safety officials alike are expecting a fairly smooth path forward to finally raise the age at which juveniles are prosecuted.

North Carolina is one of only two states (New York is the second) in the U.S. that continues to treat 16 and 17 year olds as adults in the criminal system. Champions of legislation in the past have faced an uphill battle but there has been a groundswell of support in the last year.

North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin’s Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice employed a juvenile age subcommittee to research the issue, work with stakeholders, address concerns and make legislative recommendations for moving forward.

Martin said in the full Commission’s last meeting that he would work very hard with both the governor and the General Assembly to see that the age of juvenile prosecution would be raised this year.

Ricky Watson Jr., Co-Director of the Youth Justice Project at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice said there is currently a bill being drafted that is expected to be introduced in the next couple months, April at the latest.

He added that it’s being drafted based on the Martin commission’s recommendations and that there is broad bipartisan support.

“I think that the widespread and bipartisan support is really going to push us over the edge this year,” Watson said. “It’s been prioritized by many people.”

Names of legislators who might sponsor the bill have not been released. Watson said he thinks the biggest challenge this year will be finding the money up front to make the change but that doing so will save North Carolina money in the long term.

Technological advances for the court

One major change that is currently in the works (and also the result of Martin’s commission) is a technological overhaul for the state’s court system.

Source: NC Commission on the Administration of Law & Justice

“Some of the changes that are most critical to the development of an integrated electronic courts system will occur behind the scenes,” said Sharon Gladwell, communications director at the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (NCAOC). “For example, we currently are in the process of developing a document management system – one of the building blocks in an electronic courts system.”

The Technology Services Division of the NCAOC is primarily responsible for the judicial branch’s technology needs. It provides network, infrastructure, hardware, software applications, technological support and services to more than 500 courtrooms and offices spread across the state.

Employees of the division will work to create an extensive, statewide, inter-agency technology operation to be followed by case management and then electronic filing. Court documents are not currently available online, so often times attorneys and people who need the information have to travel to the court house where it’s filed.

Gladwell said the division is also working on updating the North Carolina courts website to provide easy functionality for everyone on desktops and mobile devices.

North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jackson, who is co-chair of the Commission’s technology subcommittee, said time is a really critical component to making all the changes.

“I think we all wish that the transformation to an electronic filing system could be immediate, but … the magnitude of our court system makes this impossible,” she said.

She added that it was important to get the transformational change right.

“Many people – lawyers and non-lawyers – are very eager for this change to happen as quickly as possible, but others fear the change that is coming,” Jackson said. “When I became chair of the committee, I thought it was important to work using as little paper as possible. I’ve enjoyed the change, but I recognize that a lot of folks like me who are middle-aged or older will not be as comfortable making these changes. We’ll need to work to support and encourage our stakeholders as we move through this process.”

Judicial Branch stakeholders were at the forefront of all the technology committee’s recommendations, Jackson said. Stakeholders include residents, attorneys, judicial branch employees and members of law enforcement.

“First and foremost, we recognize that utilizing technology successfully is critical to providing equal access to justice for all of our citizens,” she said. “We live in a technology driven society and our courts need to provide effective electronic access to the public.”