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N.C. Zoo, National Geographic to team up on video project in 2020, just one of the many things on the zoo’s to-do list this year

ASHEBORO — If seeing larger-than-life polar bears and gorillas in person wasn’t enough, the North Carolina Zoo is taking steps to bring them to your home — virtually, that is.

While Asheboro’s spacious natural habitat attraction has been awarded many grants from National Geographic in recent years for its conservation efforts, the nature-focused media outlet is now working on a collaborative video project with the zoo in 2020.

“We’re very excited to work with National Geographic,” said Debbie Foster Fuchs, a zoo spokeswoman.

“It’s such an amazing company. National Geographic’s all about (putting) animals first and, of course, we share that value with them,” she said.

The project is set to feature interviews with zookeepers, behind-the-scenes looks at how the zoo operates and footage of the park’s 1,800-plus animals.

There is no known date for when the project will be completed or released, but camera crews have been at the zoo since October and will be filming “throughout the spring,” Fuchs said.

In addition to the film project, the zoo has no shortage of plans for 2020, some announced and others being kept under wraps.

In late winter or early spring, the zoo plans to break ground on its third continental exhibit, Asia, which will feature Komodo dragons, tigers and king cobras, among other animals.

Asia will join Africa (opened in 1980) and North America (1994) as one of the zoo’s “regions” that have been a staple of the park for decades and have helped it to become the world’s largest natural habitat zoo with more than 500 developed acres.

Sibling Komodo dragon juveniles Monty (male) and Marigold (female) are living in the park’s desert habitat but will be two of the first animals that will move to the Asia exhibit when it opens, which is expected to be in 2024.

The zoo plans on creating an Australia region in the future, but it’s still in the design stage and has not yet been funded.

“The goal of this expansion is to make the zoo a multiday destination for guests,” Fuchs said.

The park also plans to bring back fan-favorite events and exhibits in 2020, including its Kaleidoscope Butterfly Garden and “Believe in the Magic of the Season” holiday event, both of which helped lead the zoo to record attendance last year — 917,309 visitors, 85,000 more than in 2018.

Kaleidoscope, returning for its second year, is a tranquil, walk-through habitat that features dozens of butterfly species, exotic plants and beautiful flowers. The attraction, located in Junction Plaza, will be open from May to September.

“Believe,” which concluded for the 2019 holiday season on Dec. 21, turns Junction Plaza into a winter wonderland, as kids eat sweet treats from Mrs. Claus’ bakery, create take-home ornaments and take photos with Santa and animal-themed mascots. It will return for a couple of weekends in December 2020.

The first half of this year will also consist of both staff and guests being on cub watch, as the zoo’s fifth polar bear breeding season gets underway later this month; it will last until April.

The N.C. Zoo is one of just 10 Association of Zoo and Aquariums facilities — out of 238 — accredited with a breeding pair of polar bears. Anana and her partner Nikita haven’t produced a cub in the previous four seasons.

The zoo, as part of the AZA’s Species Survival Plan for rhinos, waited for more than 40 years for a healthy rhino calf.

Now it has had three born in the past two years, including a female born Jan. 5.

The zoo also welcomed two baby chimps last year, Obi, a male, born in March, and Asha, a female born in November.

Guests can watch both of them grow up in the park’s Kitera Forest habitat this year.

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GOP legislators make late pitch to judge to keep N.C.’s photo ID requirement in place for March primary

RALEIGH — North Carolina Republican legislators made a last-minute plea on Friday to a federal judge in their bid to save a requirement that people who want to vote must first show a photo identification to vote that had been set to begin with the March primary.

The GOP legislative leaders already have been turned away by U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs from entering the lawsuit that the NAACP filed against other state officials to challenge the December 2018 law. They’re again seeking to intervene while asking Biggs to suspend her decision last week that prevents the photo ID mandate from being implemented for the time being.

Biggs wrote on Dec. 31 that the new voter ID rules still contained the racially discriminatory taint of several sections of a 2013 voting law that a federal appeals court declared unconstitutional in 2016. That 2013 law required photo ID but also scaled back early in-person voting. Republicans have controlled the General Assembly since 2011.

N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat whose office is defending the voter ID law, will appeal Biggs’ decision to issue an injunction but not in time to for the March 3 primary. His office said doing otherwise would cause confusion. Republican legislators are unhappy with his timeline, leading to Friday’s filing.

The “proposed intervenors must step in and seek to protect the state’s interest in having its laws enforced,” attorneys for N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore and N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger of Eden wrote Biggs in asking for an emergency stay of her preliminary injunction.

The State Board of Elections has already announced that photo ID won’t be needed in primary voting, which essentially begins next week as county election boards begin mailing absentee ballots to those requesting them. The photo ID law, which legislators approved weeks after voters statewide approved a ballot measure in November 2018 to enshrine voter ID in the state constitution, also directs mail-in voters to provide a qualifying ID in most cases.

Attorneys for Berger and Moore disagree with Biggs’ ruling that the 2018 rules are still tainted by racial bias, saying one of the law’s primary sponsors was a black Democrat and that “the new voter ID regulations are one of the most voter-friendly” in the country. The law directed county elections boards to create free photo IDs and a way for people who still lack one to fill out a form to vote anyway.

The GOP’s attorneys wrote that Biggs wrongly “flipped the burden of proof” by requiring state lawyers to show that any taint of bias from the 2013 law had been purged from the 2018 law.

The NAACP groups who sued “have failed to identify a single voter — real or hypothetical — who will not be able to vote” under the new law, the GOP attorneys wrote in saying Biggs’ injunction irreparably harms Moore and Berger.

More than 30 states require some form of voter ID. While supporters of photo ID say it builds confidence in election results, data show voter impersonation is rare.

Who can or can’t vote is particularly important in a closely divided presidential battleground state like North Carolina, where African Americans amount to 22% of the registered voters.

Conservative group questions Guilford County's voter rolls

GREENSBORO — A conservative activist group has threatened to sue Guilford County, Mecklenburg County and the state Board of Elections over claims that they are not effectively weeding out ineligible voters.

Washington-based Judicial Watch contends that both Guilford and Mecklenburg counties maintain rosters of registered voters at numbers higher than the local populations of those old enough to vote.

Local and state officials strongly dispute that allegation.

But the group plans to file suit in federal court if the two counties and state election officials don’t offer proof they have effective, proactive programs to identify and remove registered voters no longer eligible to cast ballots, said Robert Popper, the group’s legal counsel.

“They’re supposed to under federal law,” Popper said. “They’re supposed to have a reasonable system to remove voters.”

The group singled out the two North Carolina counties among 19 jurisdictions in a total of five states to which it sent warning letters last month. Other states with jurisdictions the group alleged to have subpar voter removal practices included Virginia, California, Colorado and Pennsylvania.

Guilford County elections director Charlie Collicutt said the county does have an effective removal system in place. It relies on the state board’s computer software to identify and remove inactive voters who have not cast ballots in two, consecutive federal elections and who also have not responded to letters from the local board, he said.

In the warning letter Judicial Watch sent last month, Popper asserted that during the most recent reporting period Guilford had removed only about 3,400 voters per year for failing to vote two times in a row and not responding to a follow-up “address confirmation” letter.

Collicutt said that was inaccurate.

“On Jan. 23, 2019, I removed 31,000 names for the reasons that he cites,” Collicutt said of Popper’s letter.

Collicutt added that such large-scale removals take place periodically based on information provided by state government. The county office also assigns staff members to regularly review local records and identify voters who have died, moved out of the county or otherwise become ineligible to vote, he said.

Collicutt said he agreed it was important to carefully monitor voting rolls for accuracy and to remove people who do not belong there. But he said there is a downside that could come from failing to take appropriate care in making sure such removals are warranted.

“The other side of the coin is that you would take people off prematurely,” he said, an action that could disenfranchise someone fully entitled to vote.

Judicial Watch is a nonprofit organization that has made a name for itself as a politically conservative watchdog since its founding in 1994.

It is known for filing lawsuits based on the Freedom of Information Act in such controversial matters as former Secretary of State and ex-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s emails, climate science and the Mueller investigation.

The New York Times has said its “carpet-bomb” approach to the federal courts has unearthed government records and information that otherwise would have remained secret. But critics contend its approach is intemperate and off-base at times.

The group has had some success with its effort to improve governmental oversight of voter registration rolls. Its lawsuit against Los Angeles forced that California community to purge from voter rolls “an estimated 1.5 million inactive voters who have moved, died or become ineligible to cast a ballot,” the prominent political website Real Clear Politics said in a June 2019 report.

Judicial Watch also has claimed success in pressing similar claims that communities in Kentucky and Ohio were inadequately policing their voter rolls.

But in the Judicial Watch letter to Guilford County, Popper cited data from the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission and the U.S. Census Bureau to draw conclusions that Collicutt said are wrong.

Popper said Guilford had a registration rate of 102%, meaning that “the number of voter registrations exceeds the number of citizens in the county who are old enough to register to vote.”

He said the comparable registration rate in Mecklenburg was 107%.

But the local math presents a different picture. The most recent, federal estimate of Guilford’s population over the minimum voting age of 18 is 414,773, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

The county has 351,282 registered voters, according to the local election board’s most recent data. That amounts to a registration rate of just less than 85%.

The letter also claimed there are “about 72,000 inactive voter registrations on the county’s rolls, or about one of every five registrations.”

In fact, Collicutt said the county had 52,213 inactive voters as of Friday afternoon.

Under state and federal law, he said, voters are moved to inactive status after an initial round of two general elections in which they do not vote, do not respond to the election office’s written follow-up and have no other interaction with the local office.

While on that list, they can still vote. They are only removed if they neglect to vote in another two federal elections after that.

Collicutt said that because the county relies so heavily on the state’s database, the state Board of Elections will respond formally to Judicial Watch’s warning letter.

“I will work with the state on a response,” he said. “I’ll be involved but it will come from them.”

State Board of Elections spokesman Pat Gannon said the agency’s response to Judicial Watch is in the works.

Judicial Watch made similar claims about North Carolina’s alleged failure to comply with the National Voter Registration Act in 2017.

“To my knowledge, nothing ever came of Judicial Watch’s 2017 allegations,” Gannon said.

Popper said the group sent letters to about 100 recipients in 2017, but only had resources to pursue “the low hanging fruit” — those situations that seemed to be the most glaring.

“We have more staff now, significantly more,” he said. “We’re more likely to sue somebody we sent a letter to.”