A Lesson from North Carolina on Challengers

July 2, 2012

Those Who Learn From History Are Not Doomed To Repeat It

In the summer of 1872, a group of white citizens in Wake County, North Carolina, challenged 150 recently freed African-American voters, alleging they were improperly registered and should be removed from the voter rolls. It was one of the first organized attempts by private citizens to use the state’s “voter challenge” law to systematically undermine black political participation in North Carolina — a practice that would continue throughout the Jim Crow era.[1]

Last month, it looked like this troubling chapter from North Carolina’s history was about to repeat itself. A local Raleigh citizen — the leader of a group called the Voter Integrity Project — attempted to challenge more than 500 Wake County voters, most of whom were voters of color. Fortunately, before any of these voters were removed from the rolls, local election officials intervened and dismissed almost all of the challenges last week for lack of evidence. In doing so, these officials not only protected hundreds of voters from a baseless attack on their voting rights, but also showed how much North Carolina’s challenger law has evolved since its earliest days when it was used as a tool for voter suppression.

Other states could learn a valuable lesson from North Carolina. The Tar Heel State has a straightforward — and fair — process for deciding voter challenges before an election:

  • First, citizens are required to submit evidence to substantiate every challenge they submit to election officials. This basic proof requirement helps to prevent frivolous challenges and distinguishes North Carolina’s challenge process from many other states.
  • Second, challenges must be submitted in writing at least 25 days before Election Day, giving county election officials ample time to thoroughly review the challenger’s evidence and determine whether or not the challenge has any merit (as the Wake County Board of Elections did last week). The 25-day requirement allows election officials to turn their attention to more pressing responsibilities as Election Day approaches, such as training poll workers and updating poll books, rather than reviewing unsubstantiated challenges.
  • Third and finally, if the county board of elections determines that a challenge ultimately has merit, state law gives the challenged voter a meaningful opportunity to defend herself and even update her registration, if necessary. The voter must be notified of any challenge against her at least 10 days before Election Day and may either respond in writing or appear at a hearing before the election board. This notice requirement ensures that a challenged voter will not lose her right to vote without her knowledge.

The recent events in Wake County demonstrate how these simple safeguards can help prevent misuse of the voter challenge process. Since local election officials are likely to see growing numbers of voter challenges as Election Day nears, states should follow North Carolina’s lead and take steps now to update their own antiquated voter challenge laws. Only by modernizing our voting system in this way can we build a truly inclusive democracy for the 21st century.


[1]  See Frenise A. Logan, The Negro in North Carolina, 1876-1894, at 54 (1964) (describing how North Carolina’s challenger law was used to target black voters shortly after Reconstruction ended); Jerry Gershenhorn, A Courageous Voice for Black Freedom: Louis Austin and the Carolina Times in Depression-Era North Carolina, 87 N.C. Hist. Rev. 57, 78-79 (2010) (recounting how white Democrats used voter challenges to hinder black political participation in North Carolina during the early 1930s).