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Judge: North Carolina’s voter purge process is “insane,” calls back to Jim Crow era

“This sounds like something that was put together in 1901.”

An “I voted” sticker.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

A federal judge on Wednesday described North Carolina’s process for purging voters off the rolls “insane.” She argued it “sounds like something that was put together in 1901” — a time when black voters were deliberately suppressed on a massive scale — due to how few safeguards were in place to stop almost anyone from essentially stripping another person’s ability to vote.

The process is shockingly simple: Any voter can challenge another county resident’s registration, which then leads to a formal hearing in which the challenger presents evidence that the registration is invalid. If local officials conclude there’s enough for probable cause, a challenged voter can be called to a hearing. But if challenged voters don’t turn up, they’re automatically stripped from the rolls. Obviously, this can have a disproportionate impact on poor, minority voters who just don’t have the time or the means to get to a hearing.

The NAACP sued several North Carolina counties over this. In most cases cited in the NAACP’s lawsuit, mail to challenged voters was returned as undeliverable — which gave counties reason enough to purge these voters from their rolls. This, of course, ignores the obvious fact that people could have moved within the state and simply forgotten to change their address.

US District Judge Loretta Biggs said she was “horrified” by the very few checks in this system, essentially letting anyone issue mass complaints to strip some people of their ability to vote.

Through this process, North Carolina counties have so far removed nearly 7,000 people from the county voter rolls, out of the state’s 6.8 million registered voters. The state chapter of the NAACP contends that this disproportionately affected black voters. And almost all of the challenges came from one county, Cumberland.

Biggs did not issue a ruling in the case just yet, but she acknowledged time is running out.

North Carolina has been plagued by other problems since early voting began, including long lines at polling places. Although studies show that rules and laws that limit access to voting (such as voter ID and cuts on early voting) have small to zero effect on voter turnout, civil rights advocates worry that these kinds of hurdles will disproportionately impact minority voters who tend to, due to socioeconomic disparities, have a tougher time getting to the ballot. And that could tilt the election against Democrats, who rely more on minority votes to win.

Recent polls show North Carolina is extremely close. So even a small effect may decide who gets the state’s electoral votes in the presidential race.

Beyond the political or electoral implications, the fundamental issue here is that people’s basic constitutional rights are being treated with carelessness. Even if only a few of these people are wrongly stripped of their right to vote, that’s a few people losing their basic democratic rights. That’s why the judge finds the process so abhorrent — the impact may not be huge, but when it’s people’s basic rights, the effect doesn’t have to be big to be deplorable.


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