Some blueprints outline how to build a house. But a blueprint released in February by the Institute for Southern Studies and N.C. Voters for Clean Elections described how to build a House — as well as a Senate, state Supreme Court and local governing bodies throughout North Carolina.
The “Blueprint for a Stronger Democracy” report examines the proverbial studs and joists of elections in the state: elements such as voter registration, district maps and campaign finance. Its authors conclude that North Carolina’s electoral structure needs a serious renovation, and they offer many ideas for how to carry out the work.
“We continue to see such rampant efforts to undermine elections and democracy across the South and across the country,” said Ben Barber, one of the blueprint’s coordinators and a research associate with the Institute for Southern Studies. “With this report, we really wanted to offer a contrast and a more positive vision for democracy in the state of North Carolina, specifically, but really as a model for across the South as well.”
Barber and his fellow blueprint coordinator, Melissa Price Kromm, updated a similar document produced in 2021 that features many of the same recommendations and organizational partners. Over a dozen state and national groups contributed to the report, such as Democracy N.C., the League of Women Voters of N.C., the N.C. Black Alliance and N.C. Budget & Tax Center.
Kromm, who also directs the nonprofit N.C. Voters for Clean Elections, says a new version was needed in response to the country’s rapidly changing electoral landscape. The COVID-19 pandemic shifted how many voters cast their ballots, she said, placing more importance on early voting and voting by mail. Election disinformation and threats against election officials are also on the rise, she added, as exemplified by the Jan. 6, 2021, attacks on the U.S. Capitol.
A closer look at the blueprint
Barber and Kromm organized the report’s recommendations by topic, not importance, and they are reluctant to prioritize any given proposal as the most critical for North Carolina. “I believe that they all need to be done,” Kromm said. “We can’t do bits and pieces of [the blueprint] and think that we’ve actually accomplished something; we need a kind of writ-large overhaul of democracy.”
Some parts of the blueprint are likely to move forward more quickly than others, said Kromm, especially in an N.C. General Assembly deeply divided along party lines. Republicans control both chambers of the legislature, and while Democrats have filed bills that would enact many of the report’s recommendations, the Republican Party has the power to keep those proposals from being considered.
Kromm suggested that several provisions could gain bipartisan support. She pointed to elements in the Safeguard Fair Elections Act, proposed in the legislature as Senate Bill 313, that would protect the personal information of election officials. Other parts of the act would spend more state funds on security training and threat monitoring for the N.C. Board of Elections. The blueprint notes that Wake County election officials have experienced stalking and harassment, while the NCBOE itself has received threatening emails.
Barber said another recommendation that’s gathering bipartisan momentum is a constitutional amendment to repeal the state’s voting literacy test. Election officials selectively enforced this test during the Jim Crow era as a reason to refuse voter registration to Black residents. The federal Voting Rights Act made the test illegal in 1965, but advocates still want it removed from the constitution as a gesture of acknowledging past racial injustice.
Eliminating the literacy test would be a symbolic win for voters of color, but it wouldn’t change anything about how they actually vote. Marcus Bass, deputy director of the N.C. Black Alliance and a contributor to the report, sent an email to Carolina Public Press, with other recommendations that would have a more tangible impact on the democratic process.
“Automatic voter registration, voter enfranchisement of formerly incarcerated people, resources for local elections, fair redistricting through independent committee and nonpartisan judicial elections are arguably the strongest measures that could bring all residents to closer political parity,” Bass told CPP via email. “Implementation of these measures alone would ensure access to the ballot for hundreds of thousands of [Black, Indigenous and people of color] voters regardless of party affiliation.”
Even changes that would perhaps benefit lawmakers aren’t likely to make progress. For example, the blueprint recommends that North Carolina raise its pay for legislators — currently under $14,000 per year, one of the lowest rates in the country — to make it easier for younger, less well-off people to serve in the General Assembly. But Kromm said that House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Kings Mountain, has entirely ruled out this proposal.
“We’ve seen legislators drop out and choose not to run again because it’s just not financially feasible,” Kromm said. “You can either be wealthy or you can be retired to be a legislator, and that really skews what kind of issues are taken up and decided upon in the legislature.”
Democracy in a divided legislature
Kromm said that achieving all the blueprint’s goals will be a long-term effort. This is especially the case given the makeup of the GA. After N.C. Rep. Tricia Cotham of Mint Hill announced April 5 that she would leave the Democratic Party and join the Republicans, the GOP now holds a supermajority in both the House and Senate. That means Republicans can potentially override vetoes by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper through a party-line vote without any support from their Democratic colleagues.
“We haven’t gotten a good response,” Kromm said about efforts by the report’s backers to connect with Republicans on issues of democracy reform. Instead, she said, GOP lawmakers are proposing changes that would make it more difficult to cast a ballot. House Bill 303, for example, would reduce the state’s number of early voting days, while House Bill 304 would eliminate the three-day “grace period” for county boards of elections to accept mailed ballots after Election Day.
CPP reached out to the primary sponsors of both bills: Reps. Mike Clampitt, R-Bryson City; George Cleveland, R-Jacksonville; Ted Davis, R-Wilmington; Chris Humphrey, R-Kinston; and Harry Warren, R-Salisbury. None responded to multiple requests for comment about their reasons for supporting the changes.
Chris Cooper, a professor of political science at Western Carolina University, said Republicans generally frame their proposals as matters of election security. “We need to make it harder to vote, to make sure that only the people who should [be voting] are voting,” he explained as the GOP stance. Democrats, he continued, emphasize the importance of voting access and say concerns over fraud are overblown.
Partisan disagreement over how democracy runs is a relatively new phenomenon in North Carolina, said Cooper. Experts have recognized the state for well-managed elections since at least 1949, when political scientist V.O. Key Jr. praised North Carolina in his “Southern Politics in State and Nation.” The state’s leaders, Cooper adds, were among the first to adopt practices like same-day registration for early voting.
Former Republican President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about elections and voting has contributed to the shift in attitudes about America’s democratic process, Cooper said. Cooper used the example of mail-in ballots, which prior to Trump had been used more by Republicans than Democrats in North Carolina. That changed after Trump cast doubt on the security and legitimacy of voting by mail in 2020.
“[Mail-in voting] became polarized partially because Donald Trump told people that it should be polarized,” Cooper said. “So you had Republican leaders calling in question things that before were just the normal course of doing business.”
By making election administration another topic of partisan debate at the national level, Trump made it nearly impossible for state lawmakers to pursue common ground, said N.C. Sen. Julie Mayfield, D-Asheville. She’s a primary sponsor of SB313, the Safeguard Fair Elections Act. Mayfield said Republicans haven’t responded to the bill.
“I put this in the category of issues that we, as Democrats and Republicans, are not allowed to publicly agree on,” Mayfield said. “They have to go to their extreme or semiextreme place, and our job is to say no to that.
“Everything is caught up in a bigger, partisan political conversation, and it sadly prevents any level of real conversation and real problem-solving on these issues,” she said.
A long path toward change
In light of the current political climate, Bob Phillips said, it’s best to consider the report as an “aspirational blueprint” for change. He’s the executive director of Common Cause N.C., one of the state’s leading government affairs nonprofits and a partner on the report.
Phillips said the blueprint can serve as a key educational tool for Common Cause and other advocates as they hold events and interact with the general public. Its explanation of different reforms, he suggests, will move conversations beyond quick partisan responses toward more thoughtful ways to strengthen democracy.
“What is our ultimate goal? It should be to enhance and increase voter participation,” Phillips said. “It’s about helping people understand that these attacks on our democracy, particularly with regards to how the maps are drawn and what voting laws we have, are a danger to us all, not just a particular party.”
Although progress in the legislature may be hard as Democrats and Republicans continue to disagree, people are talking about the basics of how democracy works in ways they weren’t talking before, said Kromm. For those who want to be better informed in their conversations, the blueprint can give good background on topics like voter registration list maintenance and election audits — subjects that were once niche but are now part of mainstream political discourse.
As people learn more, Kromm said, they’ll eventually demand reform. “These issues, historically, were ivory-tower issues. They weren’t accessible to a broad base of the public,” she said. “[The blueprint] is about educating the people of North Carolina to actually advocate for these issues so that the winds do change.”
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Daniel Walton is a freelance journalist based in Asheville. He was most recently the news editor of the alt-weekly Mountain Xpress, and his work has previously appeared in regional publications such as Capital at Play, Edible Asheville and the Citizen Times.