Mistrust in North Carolina Over Plan to Reduce Precincts

SHELBY, N.C. — When Alan Langley, a Republican member of the local elections board here, explains a new proposal to consolidate five voting precincts into two, it sounds procedural and well-meaning: He speaks of convenient parking and wheelchair access at the proposed polling places, and of saving more than $10,000 per election.

Those precincts, however, are rich with black voters who generally vote Democratic. And when the Rev. Dante Murphy, the president of the Cleveland County N.A.A.C.P. chapter, discusses the plan, he talks of “disenfranchisement” and “conspiracy.”

“We know,” Mr. Murphy said, “that this is part of a bigger trend — a movement to suppress people’s right to vote.”

Voting rights advocates fear that these local changes — combined with a number of new state laws restricting ballot access and requiring voters to show picture IDs — amount to a concerted effort to reduce voting by minority groups. Conservatives say that the laws ensure against voter fraud, and in some cases are more cost-efficient.

In places affected by the Supreme Court decision, the overt racism of the 1960s is largely a thing of the past: What often lingers is a racial mistrust that can make the moving of a polling place from a fellowship hall to a public park seem innocent to some, sinister to others.

“It’s amazing what can prevail in the minds of two people, where they can see the same thing and think completely differently about it,” Mr. Murphy said.

The court’s 5-4 ruling in June 2013 eliminated the requirement, known as “preclearance,” for nine states and numerous counties, including Cleveland County, that had been singled out under the Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 to root out the Jim Crow chicanery that denied the franchise to blacks in the Southern states and elsewhere.

“Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.” The precinct changes here will be decided Tuesday by the Cleveland County Board of Elections, an all-white body made up of two Republicans and one Democrat. According to Mr. Langley and Dayna Causby of the board, one of the current polling places — Putnam Baptist Church — will soon be unavailable because it is undergoing renovations.

Francis X. De Luca, president of the Civitas Institute, a conservative North Carolina think tank, said it was about time that the federal government returned decision making to the local level. Forty of North Carolina’s 100 counties had been required to submit election changes for preclearance.

“This is something that local people can work out,” Mr. De Luca said.

Voting rights advocates are less trusting, as are, generally, Democrats, whose success in states like North Carolina is dependent on ensuring high black voter turnout.

Advocates say it is difficult to monitor, let alone quantify, all of the local election law changes in the areas freed from government review, since the Justice Department is no longer notified of the changes they make.

But a number of cases around the South have made news. In Pasadena, Tex., voters in November narrowly approved a City Council redistricting plan that critics said diluted the political power of Latinos.

Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in Augusta, Ga., over a plan that moved mayoral and City Council elections from November to May, concerned that black voters would be less likely to go to the polls at the later date. The suit was dismissed by a federal judge in May.

Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a liberal group, rattled off a number of small-scale recent cases that he said had harmed black voters in his state: the moving of an early voting site in Hoke County; the relocation of some polling places in Rockingham County; and changes to school board districts in Guilford County.

“We know that this is part of a bigger trend — a movement to suppress people’s right to vote,” the Rev. Dante Murphy said. Credit Andy McMillan for The New York Times

Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said that before the court’s ruling, black residents in a small town could go to their local election board knowing that the federal government would help them block a change that might make it harder for them to vote. “But they can no longer say that,” Ms. Earls said. “Something that gave them a more level playing field is now gone. It has altered the balance of power.”

On Monday, the Obama administration joined the N.A.A.C.P., the A.C.L.U. and others in court in Winston-Salem to ask a federal judge to block sections of a North Carolina law passed by the Republican legislature and currently in effect that scale back ballot access. The plaintiffs argued the law, which would also by 2016 require voters to show IDs, placed “disproportionate burdens on black voters.”

Mr. Murphy has been watching that story unfold from his perch in Shelby, where he is the pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church. The city, a former textile hub, has been reinventing its economy of late, attracting a mixture of automotive and tech industry jobs.

But Mr. Murphy said that hiring decisions here too often occur within a whites-only social circle. A few weeks ago, Mr. Murphy and other black preachers led a public protest over the selection of a white schools superintendent, claiming that the school board had failed to consider other qualified candidates.

When he got word of the precinct plan in late June, Mr. Murphy said, he figured that it was “part of the North Carolina Republicans’ push to suppress voting.” He and a number of other N.A.A.C.P. members decided to attend a pair of Board of Elections hearings on the matter.

On June 23, more than 30 residents showed up at the indoor gymnasium at Holly Oak Park, a proposed new polling place.

Mr. Murphy said that fewer polling places meant that lines would be longer on Election Day — and that longer lines would dissuade some voters from casting their ballots.

Others, he said, might mistakenly vote at the wrong polling place. Such ballots were once counted in North Carolina, as long as the ballot was cast in the correct county. But the new law makes them invalid.

Mr. Langley, one of two Republican board members, said he was shocked that anyone would assume that the proposal was based on racial, or even partisan, motives.

“Even though I’m a Republican, my duty is to the taxpayers of Cleveland County,” he said.

Mr. Langley recently gave a tour of the polling places that would be closed under the plan, including two fire departments. These, he said, were much more cramped than the two sites where voters would be rerouted, both of them big public park buildings where setting up voting machines would be easy, and people would not have to wait outside, he said.

Mr. Langley, 53, an operator of a local pest control company, said he did not even know that the county had been freed from the preclearance provisions until the public meeting on June 23. And he could not believe that anyone would be upset about having to show an ID to vote.

Across from the Putnam Baptist Church on Thursday, Tina Sydnor, 52, a retired retail worker, said she was worried about the effect of a precinct change on her fellow black neighbors, especially those who had to be persuaded to vote.

“It’s already hard to get them to the polls,” she said.

This post originally appeared in the New York Times