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A Lesson from North Carolina on Challengers

Recent events in Wake County demonstrate how simple safeguards can help prevent misuse of the voter challenge process.

  • Nicolas Riley
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).