CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Nov. 8 was weeks ago, and yet the election’s aftermath continues. On the national stage and in the headlines, the winners, losers and those who barely made a dent are unhappy and are doing something about it, from recounts to tweets to repeating debunked conspiracy theories of hordes of illegal voters.
In North Carolina, folks are saying, “Welcome to the club!”
In the state, yet to name a governor-elect, the arguments flying back and forth sound awfully familiar. And, increasingly, those arguments look like an attempt to restore and strengthen restrictions that advocates and courts recognize as barriers to voting rights.
As Donald Trump and incumbent Republican Sen. Richard Burr were winning their contests comfortably on Election Night, GOP Gov. Pat McCrory’s race was a nail-biter. After Durham County’s ballots were totaled, later than usual because of glitches in tabulating machines, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Attorney General Roy Cooper, surged.
When Cooper ended the night about 5,000 votes ahead, out of more than 4.7 million cast, McCrory’s campaign charged voter fraud — never mind his personal unpopularity due to support of House Bill 2, the “bathroom bill” revoking Charlotte’s LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance that has led to business and entertainment boycotts, or controversies over coal ash cleanup and a toll-road contract.
‘Dead people and felons?’
Was it “counting the votes of dead people and felons” as McCrory spokesman Ricky Diaz said in a statement contesting the initial result reports? It was likelier that many voters decided to abandon a straight Republican ticket. The talking points from McCrory’s campaign have changed; it said it would drop requests for a statewide recount if the state Board of Elections approves one for Durham County.
In truth, reality may be sinking in for McCrory, a GOP incumbent not swept along with his party’s successes. Cooper’s lead has grown with each county’s official report, and there is no reason to think heavily Democratic Durham County would change that. The not-quite-official governor-elect has already announced a transition team. The election boards in all the state’s counties are controlled by Republicans, and they have rejected McCrory’s claims.
But though the fight in North Carolina, just as ones in several states over the presidential race, probably will not change the ultimate result, it has given political parties and partisan groups another chance to debate voting rights and restrictions.
Donald Trump may merely be peeved that he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. Yet his baseless tweets that millions illegally voted in California, Virginia and New Hampshire, as well as talk of the dead and felons casting ballots, have revived charges that gave rise to wide-reaching voter ID bills, initiated by mostly Republican-controlled legislatures. Proponents argue voter integrity while opponents call it voter suppression, and point out that the rules disproportionately affect minorities, students, the elderly and the poor. It just happens that this wave of new legislation swelled after 2008, when Barack Obama was elected the first African-American president of the United States.
North Carolina was one of those states that instituted a long list of voting restrictions after the Supreme Court in 2013 invalidated key portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The state’s bill has been in the courts since then; before the November election, a federal court tossed out much of it for targeting African-American voters with almost “surgical precision.” That didn’t stop the state and others across the country from cutting back on early voting hours and closing or delaying the opening of voting sites, many in minority neighborhoods.
The original bill is one McCrory and the state legislature still support, and one whose language and provisions are being revisited in the flap over the close gubernatorial race.
Trump’s raising the specter of voter fraud, during and after his presidential run, reinforces GOP support for the restrictive laws, from Texas to Wisconsin. Come January, that go-ahead will reach from the highest level, with a Supreme Court whose new justices will now be chosen by Trump and, heading the Justice Department as attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who supported the high court’s 2013 ruling and unsuccessfully prosecuted black civil rights activists for voter fraud in the 1980s.
In North Carolina, the conservative Civitas Institute has filed its own suit, questioning the counting of ballots cast using same-day registration until all addresses could be verified. It is a criticism against the very concept of same-day registration, eliminated in the North Carolina voting bill the courts have ruled against. Lawyers from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, some of whom worked to overturn the law, weighed in to ask the court to reject the Civitas suit.
It’s clear that for some still fighting the results of the McCrory-Cooper contest, the confusion represents a chance to breathe new life into barriers to voting. With a future of friendlier faces in the Department of Justice and in the majority on the Supreme Court, that may be a smart, though shameful, tactic, one that is sure to spread across the country. John Lewis, who met violence while marching in Selma in 1965 to win voting rights, is now a U.S. congressman from Georgia, involved in a new battle to retain those rights playing out in more genteel quarters.
For McCrory, though, the North Carolina fight may mean nothing more than a realization that it’s not the system, it’s you.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.