National, state Democrats agree to place NC election lawsuit on hold

Carolina Journal photo by Mitch Kokai

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  • The Democratic National Committee and North Carolina Democratic Party are willing to place a hold on their federal lawsuit challenging Republican-approved changes to state election law.
  • The Democratic groups, State Board of Elections, and GOP legislative leaders filed a joint motion Tuesday to stay their lawsuit.
  • The parties agree legislative action this year could affect the Democrats' legal complaint.

The Democratic National Committee and North Carolina Democratic Party are pressing pause on their lawsuit challenging recent changes to the state’s election law. A court order Wednesday granted their request to put the lawsuit on hold.

A court filing Tuesday suggested parties in the case believe legislative action this year could affect the lawsuit’s claims.

The DNC, NCDP, State Board of Elections, and top legislative leaders filed a joint motion to stay the case in US District Judge Thomas Schroeder’s court. The judge issued an injunction in January addressing the lawsuit’s complaint about changes affecting same-day voter registration.

Schroeder’s court order Wednesday granted the joint motion. He has mandated a progress report by the end of the year.

“In light of the Court’s ruling on plaintiffs’ preliminary-injunction motion, steps the State Board of Elections has taken in the wake of that ruling, and the possibility of further legal developments in the coming months, the interests of judicial economy warrant a stay,” according to Tuesday’s joint court filing.

The filing notes that the state elections board has taken temporary measures to address the lawsuit’s complaints about same-day registration changes tied to Senate Bill 747. The board also has adopted rules regarding SB 747’s provisions on partisan poll observers. Both of those changes will remain in effect into 2025 barring other legislative action.

“Given all this, and given the concomitant possibility of further legislative action regarding same-day registration, the parties submit that a stay will appropriately conserve judicial resources by avoiding litigation over issues that could soon become moot,” according to the court document.

The parties also agree that a “lifting of the stay could be warranted” if the General Assembly passes new legislation linked to same-day registration, or if the elections board changes or “fails to enforce” its temporary rules.

“Plaintiffs notify the Court that they expect to move the Court to lift the stay if they have reason to believe that poll observers are intimidating voters,” the document adds. “In either instance the parties agree that absent some time urgency, they will meet and confer prior to moving to lift the stay.”

The joint document arrived on the same day that state and national Democratic groups filed a separate brief with Schroeder’s court. It defended the lawsuit against motions from the elections board and Republican legislative leaders to have the case dismissed.

“North Carolina Senate Bill 747 (‘S.B. 747’) threatens, at virtually every stage of the voting process, North Carolinians’ ‘constitutionally protected right to vote and to have their votes counted,’” Democratic lawyers wrote. “S.B. 747 makes it harder to register and vote on the same day; allows ballots by same-day registrants to be rejected without any notice or opportunity to challenge the rejection; empowers poll observers to move freely about voting places, enabling intimidation; requires the discarding of absentee ballots received by election officials even one second after the polls close; and permits certain voters to be purged from the voting rolls, even on the eve of an election.”

“All this was supposedly done to prevent voter fraud—despite there being ‘no evidence of any fraud or other irregularities that could [have] affect[ed] the outcome’ of recent elections,” Democrats court filing continued. “The U.S. Constitution and multiple federal statutes prohibit S.B. 747’s multi-prong scheme for suppressing votes. And neither defendants nor intervenors provide a sound basis to dismiss any of plaintiffs’ claims.”

Schroeder issued orders on April 2 allowing two other related lawsuits to proceed. Both of those suits from left-of-center activist groups targeted the same-day registration change mentioned in the Democrats’ lawsuit. The challenged provision would force elections officials to reject ballots from same-day registration voters if a single mailing to their stated address proved undeliverable.

While Schroeder issued an injunction dealing with that change, he refused to block the other pieces of the law targeted in Democrats’ lawsuit. He rejected injunctions requested for SB 747’s poll observer changes and the new law requiring mailed-in absentee ballots to reach county elections offices by the close of polls on Election Day.

State House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, and Rep. Grey Mills, R-Iredell, responded to Schroeder’s January order. Mills chairs the House Election Law and Campaign Finance Reform Committee.

“The vast majority of Senate Bill 747 is still in effect including increased poll observer access, bans on special interest money funding election offices, and making election day the last day to receive absentee ballots,” Moore and Mills said in a prepared statement. “The court order requires relatively minor changes to one small part of the bill, and we are working with our attorneys and the State Board of Elections to ensure that the entire bill is in effect before the primary and general elections this year. We will never stop fighting for election integrity on behalf of North Carolina’s voters.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect Judge Thomas Schroeder’s decision Wednesday to grant the joint motion to stay Democrats’ lawsuit.