Last year, the North Carolina chapter of a national, nonprofit “good government” organization helped change the course of future elections in the state.
“We had two big victories last year,” said Bryan Warner, communications director of Common Cause North Carolina. “The good news is, as we head into 2021, it sets the framework that the law of the land in North Carolina that racial and partisan gerrymandering are illegal.”
In the Common Cause v. Rucho case last summer, the Supreme Court decided (5-4) that it could not resolve partisan gerrymandering; however, state courts could. In September 2019, the North Carolina judiciary ruled in favor of Common Cause N.C. in the case of Common Cause v. Lewis, and for the first time ever, North Carolina courts found that partisan gerrymandering violated the state’s Constitution.
“That was a huge victory that resulted in the redrawing of our state legislative maps, and very soon after there was another case, Harper v. Lewis, that was challenging Congressional districts that resulted in the redraw,” Warner explained, noting that in 2011, the North Carolina legislature engaged in both racial and partisan gerrymandering, resulting in redrawing of the Congressional district maps.
“Thankfully, the courts agreed with those challenging the maps and recognized that they engaged in unconstitutional racial gerrymandering and unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering,” he said. “So, if they can get it right in 2021 and actually abide by the law and Constitution, in theory, we should not have to redraw them multiple times in the coming decade. But again, if we see illegal gerrymandering happening, we will continue to challenge it.”
Warner said that the next step Common Cause N.C. hopes to accomplish is establishing nonpartisan, independent redistricting reform, by creating a Citizen’s Redistricting Commission that would take the power of redistricting out of the hands of politicians. By entrusting the citizen’s commission with redrawing the maps, Warner said, the voting maps would be free from partisan politics with full participation and total transparency.
“Even though we won these court cases, it is always going to be a conflict of interest when you have politicians drawing their own districts,” he said. “The good news and the reason for hope is that in this most recent legislative session, there were a half dozen redistricting reform bills filed, which is a good sign by itself and a couple of those bills had really strong bipartisan support.”
One of those bills, he noted, had 66 bipartisan co-sponsors in the North Carolina House of Representatives, which was a record number of redistricting reform bills in North Carolina history.
“That would have been enough to pass that bill in the house right away; unfortunately, legislative leadership did not let those bills come up for a vote,” Warner said. “But the good side is that we are seeing this growing support from both sides of the aisle for rank and file members recognizing that gerrymandering has just got to go…the public is with us, the courts are with us, and we are seeing a growing number of legislatures with us as well. We are optimistic that we will see progress. Next year, of course, is a crucial year because it is the next round of redistricting, and that will have a great impact on our districts in elections for the next decade to come.”
Warner said that this year, Common Cause is celebrating 50 years of defending voting rights and encouraging voter participation in North Carolina. According to the website, Common Cause’s mission is “dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy. We work to create an open, honest and accountable government that serves the public interest; promote equal rights, opportunity and representation for all; and empower all people to make their voices heard in the political process.”
The organization’s work focuses on creating an ethical/open government, reducing money’s influence, ensuring fair districts and a reflective democracy, as well as expanding voting rights and election integrity.
According to Wikipedia, Common Cause was founded in 1970 by Republican John W. Gardner, who served in the Lyndon B. Johnson administration as the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.
“He realized that everybody was organized except the people,” Warner said. “We have all these special interest groups, and they are in the halls of government, and his mission, which we carry on today, is to be representative of the people. And we come from the wonderful state of North Carolina with a lot of diversity, and we want to reflect that— fortunately, we do.”
Warner said Common Cause N.C. “strives to be inclusive and reflective” to build a democracy that works for everybody.
“The only way democracy can truly function is if everyone has a seat at the table— every voice is heard, and vote is counted— to ensure that we have a government that is of, by and for the people. “
Warner said Common Cause N.C. is also committed to demystifying voting “by helping voters understand that voting is accessible, safe and a secure way to participate in the democratic process.”
Common Cause N.C. along with its partner organization, Democracy North Carolina, have created a nonpartisan, statewide voter guide that provides a platform to inform voters where their candidates stand on important issues. Warner said all of the candidates running for office in North Carolina are sent Common Cause and Democracy N.C.’s issue-based questionnaires to answer so that voters can decide for themselves who to vote for. Warner noted that the questionnaire is optional and that candidates aren’t required to submit their information if they choose not to.
“We are always disappointed when we don’t get a response from candidates— we make many, many efforts, to reach them,” Warner noted. “We send letters, multiple emails, phone calls and we do try to exhaust every way to encourage candidates to participate. Some candidates don’t want to, and that is their right. We do strive to have 100% participation, and we certainly actively encourage candidates to participate.”
When asked what that may say about candidates who don’t answer the nonpartisan questionnaire, Warner said, “We leave it to the voters to decide.”
“Seldom do we hear back from the candidates that choose not to, seldom do we hear them giving us a reason why they don’t,” he added. “I would be simply speculating why someone does not participate, but I think I’d rather just let the voters make that decision themselves and how they think about that.”
(YES! Weekly thinks it is worth noting that the majority of candidates that did not answer the nonpartisan questionnaire were part of the Republican Party.)
Warner said Common Cause has also released an online, interactive voter guide, where eligible voters can put in their address and inform themselves where their candidates stand on certain issues that may be important to them. Warner said that Common Cause also put together a local government voter guide for the six North Carolina counties (Wake, Guilford, Forsyth, Mecklenburg, Cumberland and Pitt) that have the largest and most diverse populations.
“What we have found is that a lot of folks don’t know about the other candidates on the ballot,” Warner said. “One of the important things about the voter guide is providing information about the races that are equally important that are affecting our daily lives and localities, and the state legislator, obviously enacting policies that have a direct impact on people’s lives.”
Common Cause N.C.’s College Outreach Program Manager Michael Spencer said he got involved with Common Cause N.C. because he supports “holding power accountable.”
“One of the biggest selling points for me as a millennial voter is I get tired of getting stuff in the mail that’s like, this person is great because they are better than this person,” said Common Cause N.C.’s Youth Programs Manager Alyssa Canty. “So, it is nice to see the voter guide emphasize what the candidates’ true stances are on certain issues that are deal-breakers to me or the reasons why I vote.”
Canty said young voters, like herself, are more motivated to vote on issues, such as police accountability and transparency, so the candidate questionnaire contains questions related to issues such as these to see where those running for office stand on the issues.
“Our voter guide is able to uplift those questions because those are not the questions that come up at candidate forums sometimes,” she explained. “Even if you are at a candidate forum, it is hard to think of a way to ask it in a fair way, and even then, maybe one candidate responds, and one doesn’t. So, it is nice to have it laid out in a nice and clean format.”
Warner said every election, the public gets inundated with a lot of information, and the goal of the voter guide is to present the public reliable, nonpartisan information in an organized way.
“We really think it’s crucial and not only that, beyond the election, we think it is crucial to also provide reliable information in a year-round way,” Warner said. “We are also hopeful that people that get engaged, maybe for the first time ever, will understand that with a lot of these offices— like the county commissioners offices— our role as voters is to not only to learn about them as we go cast a ballot but to hold [elected representatives] accountable. They stated their positions when they ran for office, so we as North Carolinians, have to hold them accountable in office.”
In addition to information about candidates, the voter guide includes information about the various ways to vote this year, including information about absentee voting, which Warner said is a good and safe voting option amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Voting by mail is a great option here in North Carolina, and it’s been made easier as well— the State Board of Elections now has an online portal where you can go to request it there,” he said.
The deadline to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 27, but he strongly urges voters to request their absentee ballot earlier and send it out sooner, due to the record number of requests being made.
“Folks also can return their ballot via the United States Postal Service, through a commercial carrier, or you can take your completed absentee ballots to any early voting site in your county during the early voting period (Oct. 15-31),” Warner said, adding voters are required to mark their absentee ballot in the presence of one witness that is at least 18 years old. According to the State Board of Elections, "For the 2020 general election, only one witness is required for an absentee ballot. The voter is required to mark the ballot in the presence of the witness. The witness should not observe so closely that they can see how the voter votes. Instructions will come with your absentee ballot."
“Or you can take it to your county’s Board of Elections office as well.”
Warner said that absentee ballots could also be dropped off at the polling place during the early voting period, however, he said that absentee ballots could not be dropped off at polling sites on Election Day.
“It is a good, secure way to vote, it’s a great option, in addition to the option to early voting or Election Day voting,” he said. “I think folks should have confidence that their votes are going to count. You also have the ability to track your ballot through the state board of elections online system as well. And if folks make a mistake on their absentee ballot, the state Board of Elections is required to contact them and give them the opportunity to fix that mistake. But I think overall folks should view absentee voting by mail as one of the great options they have here in North Carolina.”
Spencer stressed that voters should vote how they are most comfortable.
“I think that has been part of the mission with Common Cause—educating voters and the public about all of the options available to them to exercise that essential right,” Spencer said.
Spencer noted that on Friday, Common Cause N.C. would be hosting a Historically Black College and University voter’s day, in which the organization would partner with Black Votes Matter for an event at HBCUs across the state.
“The hope is that we will pass out the nonpartisan voter guides and make sure that students are registered to vote and have a good, fun day of giving out T-shirts.”
Canty said there is a huge demand for volunteers doing election protection work outside of polling sites during the early voting period to make sure that every voter are able to cast their ballot.
(To get involved, visit protectthevote.net.)
Warner said that Common Cause N.C. has “many great partners involved in this work,” including Democracy N.C., the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, and the NAACP.
Despite a year of despair, Warner said he has faith that the future of North Carolina is “in good hands with this rising generation.”
“The young people we work with are outstanding,” he said. “They get it, and they’re dedicated, and they’re aware, and they’re committed. They are passionate, and they care— they are already going to be our leaders now, they don’t have to wait, and they are not going to ‘wait their turn.’ They are stepping up now, and it is inspiring. They are a great example, and they are going to do great work ahead. Every time I come across our Democracy Fellows, I feel better about what our future holds.”