In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, reports of harassment and intimidation at the polls were so rampant in North Carolina that the state’s top election official was obliged to send a memo to his employees reminding them that they could call police if necessary. Now, as North Carolina’s governor prepares to sign one of the most restrictive election bills in the nation, civil-rights advocates and election officials in the state expect to see a rise in what they call voter intimidation. The law, which North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory is expected to sign any day, would allow political parties to send 10 roving “observers” from precinct to precinct on voting days, and it would authorize citizens to challenge the legality of votes cast in the county where the challenger lives. (Under the current law, you can only challenge a vote cast by someone living in your precinct.) Supporters contend that the law will help observers catch people in the act of fraud, but critics point out that evidence of this type of fraud is scarce. They insist that the real goal is to intimidate Democratic-leaning black voters, some of whom may remember the threats and assaults that swept the South in the late 1960s, after the 1965 Voting Rights Act toppled the official barriers blacks had faced at the polls.
“In my mind, the only reason the change is occurring is to have a harmful impact on eligible voters who are trying to exercise their constitutional right,” said Bob Phillips, the director of Common Cause North Carolina, a progressive group.
“We have hundreds of precincts located in all the communities across our state, and now you’re going to be introducing outside observers who are not residents of those precincts and who are really are up to, in my opinion, intimidation.”
In addition to boosting the presence of poll observers, the law would require every voter to display specific forms of government-issued identification, which minorities and low-income people disproportionately lack. It would also cut back on the hours allotted for early voting, prohibit people from registering on the same day that they vote, and cancel a popular program to register high-school students — practices that have boosted electoral participation among young and black voters and may have helped President Barack Obama carry the state in 2008.
The state’s Republican-dominated Legislature passed the law in July, despite scant evidence of voter impersonation fraud in North Carolina (or in any other state). In a statement, Phil Berger, the leader of the State Senate, said the bill “restores clarity, transparency and confidence in the voting process. It curtails the questions of voter fraud by folks on both sides of the aisle and helps ensure every candidate wins or loses on his or her own merits.”