Stein took the stand Tuesday as a witness for the Plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit seeking to overturn North Carolina’s controversial voting overhaul.
First elected in 2008, Stein (Democrat – District 16) was serving in the North Carolina Senate when H.B. 589 was created and passed.
“Such a dramatic rewrite”
Under questioning from Plaintiff’s attorney Spencer Fisher, Stein said he was serving on the Senate Rules Committee when H.B. 589 was first passed by the North Carolina House of Representatives on April 24, 2013. In its original form, H.B. 589 only added a photo ID requirement to voting.
The bill was under 20 pages long.
H.B. 589 sat untouched in the Senate for three months, Stein said. On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights act, which required certain states to submit major election law changes for “preclearance,” or federal approval.
The Senate’s Republican leadership introduced a new version of H.B. 589 one month later, Stein testified. The Rules Committee scheduled a discussion of the new bill for July 23, 2013.
As a member of the Rules Committee, Stein expected to receive a copy of the new bill before the July 23 discussion. He was at home on the evening of July 22 when he checked his work email at around 9 p.m.
A copy of the new version of H.B. 589 was waiting for him.
He was stunned.
H.B. 589 had grown from under 20 pages to 57. It was no long a simple voter ID bill; it had grown into an omnibus bill that ended same-day registration, pre-registration for 16-and-17- year-olds, stopped the counting of out-of-precinct ballots, eliminated a week of early voting and tightened the original photo ID requirement to a handful of acceptable IDs.
“It was the most dramatic rewrite of election laws in a generation,” Stein said.
The Rules Committee was expected to debate the expanded bill 16 hours later. Stein arrived at the meeting armed with statistics the Southern Coalition for Social Justice had culled from the North Carolina State Board of Elections. He uploaded the facts and figures to the General Assembly Chamber Dashboard, the online tool members use to follow legislative activity.
The bill went straight to the Senate floor with no debate on the new provisions, Stein said. Senators proposed amendments to save straight-ticket voting and “sunset” the new restrictions after a set period, but those amendments were defeated, he said.
Stein proposed an amendment requiring each county to offer the same number of early voting hours during the new ten-day schedule as had been offered in 2010.
“I believed [the amendment] would put a floor under which counties could not go,” he said.
The amendment passed along with another proposed by Senator Bob Rucho allowing county boards to apply for waivers excusing them from offering the extra hours.
Over 30 counties had applied for waivers by February 2014.
In his testimony Stein criticized the lack of public comment on the bill. He said ten citizens were given 2-3 minutes each to speak. No officials from the North Carolina State Board of Elections appeared, he said.
Defense: No Rules Violated
In his cross-examination, defense attorney Phillip Strach pointed out that no official Senate rules had been violated in the passage of H.B. 589. He mentioned Stein’s 9 p.m. email on July 22.
“Isn’t it true you’ve gotten other bills at that hour?” Strach asked.
Stein admitted he had, but emphasized the length and complexity of the new H.B. 589 and the Rules Committee meeting the next morning.
Strach asked Stein if he knew a separate bill to eliminate same-day registration had been submitted around the same time as H.B. 589.
Stein said he was unaware of the bill.
Strach asked Stein if he had voted for Senator Rucho’s amendment allowing counties to request waivers for extending early voting hours.
Stein admitted he had.
Strach engaged Stein in a long discussion of a General Assembly procedure commonly called “Gut and Amend.” In Gut and Amend, bills sent to one chamber are stripped, rewritten with new provisions and sent back to the original chamber for a concurrence vote.
In 2013, Gut and Amend was used to transform an anti-Shariah Law bill into a Motorcycle Safety bill filled with anti-abortion provisions.
Stein said the Gut and Amend of the Shariah Law bill took two months, while the transformation of H.B. 589 took two days.
Strach said letting members of the public speak was up to the discretion of a committee’s Chair.
“He did, didn’t he?” asked Strach.
“He did — two minutes each,” replied Stein.
Strach asked Stein if he was a candidate for North Carolina Attorney General.
Stein said he wasn’t officially a candidate, but had told members of the press he was interested in running.