ACTION ALERT: Tell the NC Board of Elections to keep its promise to secure our elections, to NOT certify any new voting machines, and to commit to making hand-marked paper ballots the standard in North Carolina. Details below.

As we all know, things in North Carolina politics can turn on a dime. Or, as it turns out, a Republican lawmaker's change of mind.

Last week, the State Board of Elections seemed poised to certify new voting machines for use in North Carolina. The decision raised voting rights advocates' eyebrows, because it came on the heels of a report published by the US Senate Intelligence Committee on Russian interference in the 2016 election and the hackability of old software in voting machines. Though the companies vying for contracts in North Carolina said they were owned by US citizens, they didn't-- and don't have to-- disclose their funding or investments. Voting rights advocates know that hand-marked paper ballots, as opposed to the touchscreen and barcode systems developed by these companies, are far more secure. NC state law currently is mandating a return to paper ballots, but the NCSBE is worried that it won't have enough time to make the change across the state before the 2020 elections. Monday night, the board voted to delay certification of new machines and work on stricter rules for voting machine certification, which many voting rights activists and those concerned with election security celebrated. Then on Tuesday, the NCSBE announced a special meeting on August 1st to rescindthe decision they made the day before. Republican board member David Black evidently had not understood that his vote to delay would "stop the present certification in its tracks".

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Whether Mr. Black was the victim of less-than-stellar reading comprehension or coercion by a party with interest in getting these less secure voting machines certified, it's a big blow to voter confidence and a bigger risk for our elections, which are already in very deep danger of no longer being free or fair.

Props to WBTV for turning over another rather grubby stone the NCSBE would rather not have had moved. According to reports obtained by that agency, “Hundreds of candidates and elected officials in local office have been able to violate campaign rules without ever being penalized by the North Carolina State Board of Elections.” A backlog in the system has allowed campaigns and candidates to file required reports late or not at all. Usually this would result in their committees being terminated by NCSBE, but this hasn't happened since January 1st, 2017. So a few candidates are raising and spending money that they shouldn't be able to, by state law. We can only hope that the new director, Karen Brinson Bell, can bring some much-needed reform to the Board.

Last week I summarized the first week and change of Common Cause v. Lewis, the gerrymandering case. The trial ended on Friday. It definitely did not go out with a whimper. On Thursday, the day before the trial wrapped, an expert witness for the defendants (that's the Republican lawmakers), admitted that some of his testimony was incorrect. Douglas Johnson, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California,

testified that deceased GOP mapmaker Thomas Hofeller’s draft 2017 legislative maps were dramatically different than the maps that lawmakers ultimately enacted. He was trying to prove that Hofeller hadn’t drawn the majority of the state’s 2017 legislative maps before the public redistricting process took place, a conclusion one of the plaintiffs’ experts presented to the court in the Common Cause v. Lewis trial. Johnson admitted though, during cross examination, that his research was inaccurate.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs (Common Cause) used this admission to ask that parts of Johnson's testimony be struck from the record. The judges agreed. Attorneys and witnesses for the defendants spent a great deal of time trying to discrediting the plaintiffs' witnesses, which, to me, is symptomatic of a weak defense and few real alternatives for building a case. But I shall leave the lawyering to the lawyers. Though the trial is over, we may not see a decision for weeks as judges review evidence and testimony. However, I'm taking as a good sign the judges' decision to strike Johnson's testimony and not to strike the testimonies of the numerous experts for the defendants that plaintiffs complained about. Common Cause executive director Bob Phillips has an even more hopeful outlook:

What’s at stake is ending partisan gerrymandering once and for all in North Carolina...I personally believe we are on the path to doing that. And what’s at stake for every citizen in North Carolina is fair maps. That’s what we want. …This is a key first step.”

And here's another reason to cautiously rejoice: the losers of the case, no matter which side, are expected to appeal the judges' decision. Then there is a high likelihood the case will end up in the North Carolina State Supreme Court, which is only one of five in the country to possess a particularly encouraging attribute: the percentage of justices of color in our state court is higher than the state’s population of people of color. This by no means guarantees any outcome, but at least in this case, the state body is much more reflective of and hopefully responsive to the population's needs.

As the budget stalemate slogs on, we're learning of more and more ways Republican lawmakers are performing sleight of budgetary hand. While earmarks (laymen might call them pork) for infrastructure repairs might seem like a necessary thing, it's their distribution and oversight that raises eyebrows. Speaker Moore's and Senate leader Berger's districts, with a fraction of the population of Mecklenburg County, got more than double the money for such projects than did the bigger county. Meanwhile, “N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper announced $112 million in water projects this week...across North Carolina — literally from Murphy to Manteo.” At least someone knows how to set a good example.

Despite spoiling themselves with such rich pork, Republican lawmakers still refuse to work with Governor Cooper on a compromise. Even though the state does not risk going broke or falling into a shutdown as the federal government has, necessary reforms like pay increases, funds for school and Medicare enrollment growth, and others are dead in the water until a budget passes. Contact your lawmakers, even if-- especially if-- they're Republican, and urge them to talk Berger and Moore into a compromise with Gov. Cooper. They all too easily forget that it's their duty serve their constituents' interests.

While you're at it, tell them that funding crisis pregnancy centers-- an item that remains in the budget-- is unacceptable, and it must be removed. If on no other grounds than one center's illegal behavior: spending government money on explicitly religious materials.

They have tentatively scheduled a budget veto override vote for Monday.

McCrae Dowless-- remember him?--and others found new charges brought against them earlier this week in connection with the absentee ballot fraud fiasco in NC-09. Whether this means Dowless will face additional jail time-- or how much-- isn't clear yet.

North Carolina advocates spoke out against the companies that have so far suppressed evidence of the health dangers of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) this week at a U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform Environment Subcommittee hearing. PFAS are carcinogens, and are also found in dangerously high concentrations in the Cape Fear River, the main source of drinking water for a quarter of a million North Carolinians. According to Jamie DeWitt, a researcher from ECU, “North Carolina is the third highest state for exposure to PFAS”. You've heard the names of the companies creating these chemicals before: DuPont and (its spinoff) Chemours. Let's hope lawmakers can get reform bills passed and PFAS out of our water before too much damage is done.

In cheerier environmental news, the Duke Energy-sponsored bill that seemed to be speeding through the NCGA has stalled, without enough votes in the house to get it passed. This bill would have locked in rate hikes for multiple years at a time, contrary to the one-year rate now. May this bill be forgotten and fade away in the back corners of the NCGA.

You might remember Rep. Cody Henson: the young Republican representative who has been on trial since the spring for cyberstalking his estranged wife despite a domestic violence protection order, has pleaded guilty to charges against him and has resigned.

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Tags: (gerrymandering, voting rights, election security, budget, state courts, NC-09, Duke Energy, voter issue: environment)

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