CHARLESTON, SC — With all due respect to Texas, North Carolina has become ground zero in the voting wars. An omnibus bill signed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory on Aug. 12 made the Tar Heel State the first to drastically change its election laws since the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on the Voting Rights Act. Since then, ballot battles have become a flashpoint in the larger backlash to the GOP’s aggressive legislative agenda.
For reporters, this is a complicated and fast-moving story. Simply describing everything the law does—it’s much more than voter ID, whatever McCrory might suggest—could take a couple thousand words. (For readers looking for a primer I recommend this recent piece by Reid Wilson of The Washington Post’s new GovBeat blog. Despite the listicle headline, it doesn’t skimp on details.) It’s also a wide-ranging story, stretching from the state capitol to obscure local elections boards to, perhaps soon, Washington.
Coverage on the story has been vast, as it’s drawn attention from far outside the state’s borders. Here’s a look at some lessons drawn from the reporting to date — inside and outside the state — and some suggestions for media moving forward:
The importance of being there
On Aug. 13—a day after McCrory signed the law—the Republican-controlled elections board in coastal Pasquotank County voted to block Montravias King, a college senior at the historically black Elizabeth City State University, from running for city council. Pete Gilbert, the county’s GOP chairman, had contested King’s candidacy, and the board ruled that his campus address didn’t meet local residency requirements.
There was one member of the press present for the vote—Jon Hawley of The Daily Advance in Elizabeth City. And as Hawley would note in his (paywalled) article, the board’s move had implications beyond King’s candidacy. “The residency requirements for a candidate are identical to those for a voter,” Hawley wrote. His article also indicated that Gilbert planned to challenge the votes of students who registered at their campus residence. The Associated Press soon jumped on the story and got Gilbert on the record saying he aimed to take his “show on the road.”
Hawley told me his paper had reported on Gilbert’s gadfly antics before, but this was the first they had made such big waves beyond the local community. “Once they saw it I think they realized it was a big enough story,” he told me. “It’s not like I was the only person on this, certainly, but I like to think I helped get the ball rolling—you know, sent up a flare that got peoples’ attention.”
Hawley’s reporting on that Aug. 13 vote for The Daily Advance helped establish that some county election boards would be quick to test the limits of the new legal landscape—and helped bring national attention to Pasquotank County. On Aug. 22, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC broadcast her show from Elizabeth City, devoting about half the episode to the North Carolina voting wars.
Maddow also pitched her viewers on supporting local papers with subscriptions—a case she continued in an interview Hawley conducted with her after the show. “I would not know what was happening in those board of elections meetings if you had not been there reporting on them,” Maddow said. “The same goes for [other counties] … and I realize it is a considerable devotion of resources for local papers to have their reporters out, sitting through those meetings and spending all that time waiting for something important to happen and being there just in case, even on the days when it doesn’t happen … sometimes things happen in those meetings which the whole country ought to hear about. And that’s true in Elizabeth City. And were it not for you being hired to work that beat and your editor telling you to go there and then that paper existing to print that story, nobody would know.”
Being there is just the start. Ask tough questions, too
Last week, the state board of elections took up an appeal to King’s case and reversed the local board’s decision, as Anne Blythe of The News & Observer in Raleigh reported. King will get to run for council.