A U.S. District Court judge ruled on Friday that four counties must restore names to voter rolls that were part of a recent mass purge.
The ruling from U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs came in response to a lawsuit filed Monday by the state NAACP. In the lawsuit, seeking an emegency 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 contends that county election boards did not follow proper notification or hearing procedures for the challenges.
“[T]here 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.
The cases of some of the voters have been the subject of national attention.
President Barack Obama discussed the experience of Grace Bell Hardison, a 100-year-old Belhaven resident in his speech in Chapel Hill on Wednesday afternoon.
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, as has been the case for years.
Though Hardison’s nephew successfully defeated the challenge, the centenarian feared that she would be turned away from the polls on Election Day, as have others from Beaufort, Moore and Cumberland counties.
“The Tar Heel state is ground zero in the intentional, surgical efforts by Republicans to suppress the voice of voters,” Barber said in a statement after filing the lawsuit on Monday. “The NAACP is defending rights of all North Carolinians to participate in this election. We’re taking this emergency step to make sure not a single voter’s voice is unlawfully taken away.”
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 that had 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 casting a ballot.
The questions about voter roll purges and other laws and efforts that the state NAACP has described as attempts to disenfranchise black voters have happened in the run-up to the first presidential election held since the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.
“It is without question that Individual Plaintiffs have made a clear showing that they will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction,” Biggs stated in her memorandum and ruling. “The General Election is a few days away and unless Individual Plaintiffs who were purged from the voter rolls are reinstated, they will not be allowed to vote and have that vote counted. Denying an eligible voter her constitutional right to vote and to have that vote counted will always constitute irreparable harm.”