WASHINGTON ― An emergency hearing was scheduled in federal court for Wednesday after the North Carolina NAACP filed a lawsuit to stop county election boards in the state from canceling voter registrations. The group argues that the cancellations are an effort by the state Republican Party to suppress the black vote.
Thousands of voter registrations have already been removed by election boards in Beaufort, Moore and Cumberland counties because a mailing to the voters’ addresses was returned as undeliverable.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the lawsuit on Monday night. The DOJ supports the North Carolina NAACP’s argument that removing voters from the rolls en masse is a violation of the National Voter Registration Act.
“The Tar Heel state is ground zero in the intentional surgical efforts by Republicans — or extremists who have hijacked the Republican Party — to suppress the voice of voters,” said Rev. William Barber, the North Carolina NAACP president, on Monday. “The NAACP is defending the rights of all North Carolinians to participate in this election.”
The civil rights group is also seeking to have the canceled registrations restored.
Many of the voters still live at the addresses listed on their voter registrations or have moved to other residences within the same county, meaning they can still vote in that county, according to the NAACP lawsuit.
Under the National Voter Registration Act, states may cancel registrations only if a voter provides written notice of a change in address or if a voter does not respond to a notice for two election cycles and fails to vote for two federal election cycles. The act also bars states from removing voters from the rolls 90 days or less before a federal election.
“Voter fraud is not the issue. But voter suppression is real, it’s planned, it’s intentional, and it’s ongoing against the African-American community,” Barber said Monday.
African-Americans have been disproportionately affected by the cancellations. Black voters account for 91 of the 138 canceled registrations (or over 65 percent) in Beaufort County, according to the North Carolina NAACP, even though black people are only 25.9 percent of that county’s population.
At least 3,951 registrations were canceled in Cumberland County, and around 400 were canceled in Moore County.
Claims of voter fraud have plagued this election season. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has repeatedly said that the election is rigged against him. (In truth, voters are more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit in-person voter fraud.)
“The claim of voter fraud and rigging did not just start with Donald Trump,” Barber said during an Oct. 27 press call. He accused North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) and other elected officials of using mere claims of fraud to help pass voter ID restrictions.
North Carolina implemented one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country in 2013. It was struck down by a state appeals court in July. The judge found that GOP lawmakers had chosen to mandate specific ID requirements ― as well as to reduce the number of early voting days and to change registration procedures ― in order to undercut black voters.
“The ones claiming rigging are the ones actually doing the rigging through voter suppression,” Barber said on Oct. 27.
Nonetheless, 23 county election boards opted to reduce early voting hours after the North Carolina GOP sent out a memo this summer urging “party line changes to early voting.” County election boards in the state are dominated by Republicans. Nine of those boards decided to dropped Sunday voting completely. But 70 increased voting hours from 2012.
The changes disproportionately hurt black voters, who tend to vote on Sundays and to make use of the early voting option. So far this year, black people in North Carolina have not turned out for early voting like they did in 2012.
The North Carolina NAACP previously asked the state to increase early voting hours and submitted four requests for officials to increase the number of early voting sites in counties affected by Hurricane Matthew. Many of those areas have just one voting site, roads that are still underwater and no weekend voting options, according to Barber.
The NAACP has also received reports of intimidation at the polls, Barber said during the Oct. 27 call. Events organized by the Souls to the Polls campaign have been photographed and participants have been heckled. Ku Klux Klan graffiti was spray-painted outside a church in Chatham County that has been active in early voting efforts.
Read the entire complaint below:
This article has been updated to include new information on the emergency federal court hearing and the DOJ’s statement of interest filing.
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