The battle for the North Carolina governor’s mansion finally ended this week, but the war over who can and cannot vote in the Tar Heel state is just getting started thanks to a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s same-day voter registration law, a 2008 measure that allows eligible voters to register to vote and cast their votes on the same day in the state’s 17-day early voting period.
The group behind the lawsuit challenging same-day registration is the Civitas Institute, a 501 © (3) that calls itself “North Carolina’s Conservative voice.” Civitas has supported an array of the state’s highest profile conservative measures since it was founded in 2005, including its restrictive voter ID laws and HB-2, better known as “the bathroom bill.”
But it is same-day registration that Civitas identified in the days after 2016 elections as so problematic and potentially fraudulent that they filed an injunction to stop the vote count in North Carolina before Republican Gov. Pat McCrory finally conceded Monday. Civitas dropped the injunction, but they did not drop their lawsuit challenging the State Board of Elections’ process for verifying same-day registrants.
“Somebody who cannot make the effort to register to vote prior to the start of voting probably isn’t giving the election a lot of thought,” said Civitas president Francis De Luca, explaining the group’s objections to same-day registration. “That doesn’t mean you’re not eligible to vote, but it makes the administration of elections much more difficult and it allows for possible shenanigans where people who aren’t eligible to vote during same-day registration actually vote in local elections that they aren’t eligible to vote in.”
De Luca argued that the State Board of Elections has created “two classes” of voters by allowing voters to register and vote on the same day, while other voters choose to register in advance and cast their votes after the state has confirmed their address and eligibility to vote.
The process has come and gone in the state since 2008, when it first passed. A controversial package of voting measures in 2013 eliminated same-day registration. But the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reinstated it in a blistering 2016 decision that accused GOP lawmakers of targeting African American voters “with almost surgical precision.” On same-day registration specifically, which African Americans in the state had used disproportionately since the law was originally passed, the court said that verifying the registrations may be more difficult for counties, but that nixing the process all together was unacceptable.
Critics have called the current Civitas lawsuit an effort at voter suppression in a state with a dark history of it, an accusation De Luca rejected.
“The only discrimination here is against procrastinators,” he said. “We’re just saying the people who don’t register in the more-than-adequate time before elections don’t get to vote in that election.”
But Irving Joyner, counsel to the NAACP of North Carolina, said the effort to target same-day registration is exactly that—discrimination directed at minority voters.
“Every citizen has a constitutional right to vote. Once they register, no matter when that is, they have a right to cast their ballot,” Joyner said. “(Civitas) is trying to promote this notion that certain people should not vote and those certain people mainly are racial minorities, particularly African Americans, who have increased tremendously their political participation in the state.”
Just as Civitas has become a mainstay on the conservative side of the fight over the state’s election laws, the NAACP of North Carolina has become a lead advocate to expand voting there. In response to the Civitas suit over same-day registration, the NAACPNC has filed a motion to dismiss it.
“It’s called beating a dead horse—they beat this horse to death under the assumption that the more they repeat it, the more truthful it will be,” Joyner said. “They are beating the drum with the hope that somewhere along the way some judicial official will agree with their lawsuit, contrary to what the law is and contrary to every legal opinion that any court has entered about same-day registration.”
A key argument in the case is likely to be whether same-day registration has been exploited for voter fraud. Although Civitas has said they had heard of some ineligible voters being able to same-day register and vote illegally, it has yet to provide any proof or details of when and where the fraud happened.
Joyner predicted the proof will never come.
“Our feeling has been that all of this was a ploy, that there was never any factual evidence that voter fraud had occurred anywhere in North Carolina,” he said. “Rather that it was a narrative that Republicans were trying to put together to challenge votes that had been legally cast around the state.”
He also accused Civitas of being an offshoot of the Republican Party financed by Art Pope, a former Republican state legislator and state conservative philanthropist who was appointed to the McCory administration. The tax-exempt Civitas was founded with seed money from the Pope family foundation, and continues to receive funding from it. “There is a circle of partisans connected together seeking the same goal,” Joyner said.
DeLuca said Pope was unaware of the suit and is not involved in the group’s day-to-day activities.
The next move in the fight belongs to the federal court hearing both the Civitas lawsuit and the NAACPNC’s motion to dismiss it. Neither side has any plans to back down.