Lawsuit argues NC's voting laws aren't built for a pandemic

More than a half a dozen lawsuits pending now on state voting rules.

Posted Updated
Election Day, polling places
Travis Fain
, WRAL statehouse reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — Left-leaning advocacy groups have filed a federal lawsuit demanding changes in North Carolina's voting laws due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The 72-page suit declares the state's absentee ballot and voter registration rules unconstitutional, saying people can't be forced to choose between voting and protecting their health. Among other things, it calls for a longer registration period and contact-less drop boxes for absentee ballots, in case there are post office delays.

The suit is the latest in a string of legal actions that may decide the ground rules leading up to the November presidential election in North Carolina. There are more than half a dozen lawsuits pending.

State lawmakers filed legislation Friday that addresses some the issues targeted by the suit, but not all of them. Allison Riggs, chief voting rights counsel for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said that bill doesn't go far enough.

“The bill filed ... is grossly inadequate and won’t moot the lawsuit, or at least not all of it," Riggs said in an emailed statement.

Riggs and the SCSJ are veterans of North Carolina voting suits, as are the two groups she represents in this case: Democracy North Carolina and the North Carolina League of Women Voters. Six North Carolina voters with health issues that make them more susceptible to the coronavirus are also plaintiffs in the suit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.

The SCSJ said it believes the suit is the most comprehensive pending against the state over safe voting practices. It seeks three-and-a-half pages of changes to North Carolina voting laws, including the following:

  • Waiving a requirement that voter registration applications be submitted at least 25 days before an election.
  • Waiving witness requirements on absentee ballots and allowing them to be requested by phone, email or online.
  • Granting more flexibility at early voting sites, which have long and uniform hours now by law, and providing personal protective equipment to all precinct workers.

The lawsuit says COVID-19 has driven voter registration down, despite the pending presidential election. It argues that uniform voting hours at early voting sites, which require staffing at times few voters are likely, will force counties to consolidate polling locations to save money.

It says the state's current requirement that two witnesses sign an absentee ballot runs counter to social distancing best practices.

That witness requirement would change under proposed legislation, which would change a number of state election laws in light of the pandemic and has bipartisan support in House, including support from leadership.

The bill's support in the Senate is not clear. It's first committee hearing in the House is set for Wednesday.

There are multiple other lawsuits pending in state and federal courts over North Carolina election laws, including three involving Marc Elias, a lead elections attorney for the Democratic Party at the national level.
Two other lawsuits target the state's voter ID requirement, which is on hold for now because of a court order.
Another suit, involving the state NAACP, seeks to undo a state law that requires felons to complete probation before their voting rights are restored.