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North Carolina editorial roundup

July 31, 2019

Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:

July 31

The StarNews of Wilmington on how the New Hanover County Board of Education needs to be more transparent while investigating claims that the school mishandled sexual assault allegations:

When the New Hanover County Board of Education hired an outside law firm to investigate how the school system handled allegations of wrongdoing against a teacher, it did something very routine. Conducting internal investigations is a common legal practice.

It was a good first step to hire the Greensboro-based law firm of Brooks Pierce, which has a practice area devoted to internal investigations. However, the board is making a big mistake by (so far, at least) not providing details about the scope of the investigation and how transparent it will be.

The bottom line is that Brooks Pierce is representing the school board. That naturally raises questions about whose interests the firm ultimately will be looking out for. Simply having an independent investigation is not enough — not by a long shot. The school board needs answers, but parents and county residents need them, too. The board must build public trust in the investigation process, and that trust-building should begin immediately.

We hope the public demands the board of education to:

— As soon as possible, hold a public information session (along with a Brooks Pierce representative) to educate the public on how the investigation will work, what measures are in place to ensure county residents that it will be thorough and impartial, and explain the client-firm relationship and mutual responsibilities;

— As allowed by law, release any contracts, scope of service agreements and other communications and documents related to its hiring of Brooks Pierce;

— Establish and publicize an investigation timeline, including objectives, key players, scope of the investigation and provide regular updates;

— Commit to making the report public to the furthest extent allowed by law and to hold an open session to present the findings;

— Ensure that the report is sent to the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.

These and other steps must be taken to ensure the integrity of the investigation. It will not be sufficient for the board simply to say “trust us.” For many people, that trust is understandably compromised, if not gone.

Meanwhile, District Attorney Ben David and New Hanover Sheriff Ed McMahon have asked the SBI to investigate allegations of criminal activity in the school system’s handling of sexual offense claims. The N.C. Attorney General’s Office has been asked to serve in an advisory capacity to the SBI.

The school board has no control over an SBI investigation. It does, however, have control over the work by Brooks Pierce. The board must make every possible effort to ensure that investigation is transparent and open. Otherwise, they are wasting our money and time and will only be further eroding the public’s trust.

Online: www.starnewsonline.com

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July 30

The Fayetteville Observer on N.C. State Board of Elections back-and-forth over new elections equipment:

Recently, the American public learned that hackers linked to Russia targeted election voting systems in all 50 states.

The information came out of a Senate Intelligence Committee report, which also found “Russian cyber actors were in a position to delete or change voter data.”

There is no evidence that actual votes were changed, officials said, an assurance we have been given with every new revelation of Russian hacks into our voting process.

But we are beginning to wonder how comfortable Americans remain in these assertions.

One thing this new information makes crystal clear: Despite it being two-and-a-half years since the November 2016 election, we do not yet have a handle on the size, scope and depth of the Russian cyber-attacks that sought to influence the results.

What we do know however, is that the most secure way to vote is also one of the oldest — paper ballots. That makes the current confusion at the N.C. State Board of Elections all the more frustrating. We could all be on paper ballots by now.

Instead, we are in the summer of 2019 with a presidential election and congressional races set for next year, a Census year, and a wide swath of North Carolina is not even sure in what form their residents will cast their ballots. These include two of the state’s largest counties, Guilford and Mecklenburg. Both are using electronic voting machines set to be declared invalid by the state by year’s end.

The five-member state elections board, with three Democrats and two Republicans, has been considering this week whether to approve three voting-machine vendors. By a 3-2 vote Monday that was not along party lines, the board voted to delay certifying the machines. The machines all produce paper ballots; one by company ES&S also incorporates a touch screen, which concerns many voting-rights activists. That machine’s paper ballots would also render peoples votes in bar code, not “human-readable” language, which also worries activists.

They cheered the board’s decision Monday. But by Tuesday, it seemed the board had changed its mind. It scheduled a vote for Thursday that would reverse its earlier decision and would set an up-or-down vote on the three vendors. Part of the reason for the reversal is that the state finds itself pressed for time, with the decision to actually purchase the machines still up to individual counties. These counties, mind you, also have municipal elections to run in the fall.

Unfortunately there may be further unplanned, delay: The elections chairman, Democrat Bob Cordle, resigned late Tuesday after coming under criticism for an offensive joke he made in a room full of elections officials who had convened for a state conference Monday.

The resignation cast doubt on what happens next.

But we should not even be here. We could have been ahead of the game.

Back in 2013, the N.C. General Assembly passed a law requiring paper ballot voting. The law said that by Jan. 1, 2018, the state would not certify machines that did not produce a paper ballot, including the DRE (direct-record-electronic) machines used in about 20 counties. But as is often the case with unfunded mandates, not much got done because many of the counties could not afford wholesale replacement of their voting machines.

State lawmakers kicked the stone down the road a little longer, giving counties nearly a year-long extension. There is even a bill making the rounds that would grant another extension, which would be both inexcusable and irresponsible.

Elections officials’ time would be better spent holding off on approving vendors, and as soon as practicable approving machines that use only paper ballots, reserving touch-screen/paper ballot hybrids for voters with disabilities who request them.

It is 100 percent certain that the Russians will again try to hack their way into our democracy, and that’s not to mention other potential bad actors like Chinese hackers or extremist groups.

We cannot control what foreign entities do. But we can secure the means by which our residents vote.

Online: https://www.fayobserver.com/

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July 29

The News & Record of Greensboro on North Carolina’s diverse Supreme Court:

North Carolinians can take pride in a report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school that examines state supreme courts across the nation.

But the same report gives us reason to worry.

The report finds that North Carolina is doing better than most states in having a high court that reflects the state’s population.

North Carolina is one of only five states where the percentage of people of color on the bench is a little higher than the percentage in the general population. Three of our seven justices are people of color. That works out to roughly 43%; the state’s population is about 37% nonwhite.

North Carolina also has three women on the high court, and Cheri Beasley is the state’s first black female chief justice.

Take a look at the high courts in most other states, and you’ll see a majority of white men. That’s true even though, across the nation, white men now make up not quite a third of the population.

The U.S. has an increasingly diverse population, but the courts that make the most important decisions on state laws don’t reflect that diversity. In 24 states, all of the supreme court justices are white, including eight states where a quarter or more of the people who live there are people of color. Even where there’s at least one justice who isn’t white, the percentage who are white is still much higher than what you’ll see if you look around that state.

Does this matter? Surely the ability to be a good justice doesn’t depend on whether someone is male or female, or a particular race. There are white men on the bench who do a good job of making sure everyone who comes before them is treated equally.

But the justice system and the courts are stronger if people — all people — have reason to believe they will be treated fairly. And it’s more than a just perception. There’s a real danger that if all or most nearly all the judges are white males, some situations and points of view are overlooked. It’s well documented that even when dealing with similar offenses, people of color are much more likely to be arrested and much more likely to serve time.

So North Carolinians should feel good that our state’s diversity is reflected on our highest court. But the part of the report that analyzes why women and people of color are underrepresented on most states’ courts suggests that we shouldn’t take our progress for granted.

The problem, the report said, is that women and people of color are much less likely to win judicial elections. Most of those who have made it onto the bench started out by being appointed to fill a vacancy, as is the case with Beasley.

Minority candidates usually raise less money and are more likely to be challenged when they run for re-election. It’s an uphill battle.

Why have things been better lately in North Carolina? The report’s authors said that when judicial candidates have access to public financing, diversity increases. In 2002, North Carolina became the first state to enact public financing for judicial elections. A lot less special-interest money from wealthy donors poured into judicial races, and candidates had more time to talk to voters. Good things happened.

Too bad legislators saw fit to repeal that public financing program in 2013.

Stay tuned for the next election.

Online: https://www.greensboro.com

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