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Judge Orders North Carolina Counties to Restore Purged Voters

A federal judge Friday ordered three North Carolina to restore names to voter rolls that were part of a recent mass purge.

By Anne Blythe

A federal judge Friday ordered three North Carolina to restore names to voter rolls that were part of a recent mass purge.

The ruling from U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs came in a lawsuit filed Monday by the state NAACP. In the lawsuit, seeking an emergency halt to voter-roll purges in Beaufort, Moore and Cumberland counties, NAACP representatives and several voters affected described the practice as an effort to suppress the African-American vote.

At issue was whether the North Carolina law that allows individual voters in this state to challenge anyone's registration violates the National Voter Registration Act, which "prohibits the mass removal of voters from the rolls within the 90 days prior to the election."

The organization also contended that county election boards did not follow proper notification or hearing procedures for the challenges.

"There is little question that the County Boards' process of allowing third parties to challenge hundreds and, in Cumberland County, thousands of voters within 90 days before the 2016 General Election constitutes the type of 'systematic' removal prohibited by the (National Voter Registration Act)," Biggs wrote in her ruling.

State Board of Elections officials, who have been required to change directions many times this year after court rulings in state and federal courts, said they intended to do what they could to meet the order by Tuesday.

"We are working quickly to establish the procedures necessary to comply with the court order between now and Election Day," Kim Strach, executive director of the state elections board, said Friday.

The cases of some of the voters have been the subject of national attention, drawing an invitation to one of the affected voters from the nation's first black president.

President Barack Obama discussed the experience of Grace Bell Hardison, a 100-year-old Belhaven resident in his speech in Chapel Hill Wednesday. He invited her to join him in Fayetteville  Friday, but her family said she was unable though she was thrilled to be mentioned.

Hardison, who has lived in Beaufort County her entire life and rarely missed an opportunity to vote, learned from her nephew recently that her name was one of dozens that had been targeted for purging from the county's voter rolls before the elections.

Though Hardison voted in the 2015 municipal elections in her Beaufort County town, a Republican named Shane Hubers challenged her eligibility because a mailing sent out to Hardison by a mayoral candidate last year was returned. Hardison gets her mail at a post office box, not her house, and has for years.

Though Hardison's nephew successfully defeated the challenge, she feared she would be turned away from the polls on Election Day, as have others from Beaufort, Moore and Cumberland counties.

James L. Cox, another lifelong Belhaven resident, learned from a friend that he was one of 138 names on the Beaufort County voter rolls that had been challenged. Of the 138 challenges, 92 of the people were black and registered Democrats, 17 were Republicans, 28 were unaffiliated and one was Libertarian.

Cox voted in the 2016 primary elections and never heard from the Beaufort County Board of Elections that his registration was among those being challenged.

Similar cases were reported by James Edward Arthur Sr., an African-American from who registered to vote in Beaufort County in 2011 and only recently found out that his registration was under challenge based solely on undeliverable mass mailings. Arthur moved into a nursing home in 2013 because of an injury, but he remained in Beaufort County.

James Michael Brower, a black voter from Robbins, learned recently that his registration had been challenged because of a change of address. Though he successfully had his name removed from the challenge list after going to the Moore County Board of Elections to let them know he remains a county resident, Brower also worries that there will be more efforts to prevent him from voting on Nov. 8.

The Moore County challenges were prompted by N. Carol Wheeldon, secretary of the Moore County Republican Party and a volunteer with The Voter Integrity Project, whose director Jay Delancy says he wants to reduce the potential for voter fraud and show that voter rolls across the state are not purged as often as he would like to remove people who have moved or died.

Similar mass mailings sent out in Cumberland County also led to nearly 4,000 challenges there.

After calling an emergency hearing on Wednesday in federal court in Winston-Salem and hearing some of the evidence in the case, Biggs told county attorneys who appeared before her that she was "horrified" by the "insane" process by which voters could be removed from the rolls without their knowledge, according to The Associated Press.

"It almost looks like a cattle call, the way people are being purged," Biggs said. "This sounds like something that was put together in 1901," when the state used Jim Crow laws to prevent black citizens from voting.

In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling that broke down along ideological lines, freed nine mostly Southern states from having to get advance approval from the federal government before changing election laws.

After that decision, North Carolina enacted broad changes to its election law, which has since been struck down by the federal courts as designed with "almost surgical precision" to weaken the black vote.

(c)2016 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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