The North Carolina General Assembly is racist, according to Attorney General Eric Holder. In its new election reform law, “The state legislature took extreme, aggressive steps to curtail the voting rights of African-Americans.” Is he right, or just protecting his blue voters?
This summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down the section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring the federal government to pre-approve southern state election laws. The history of discrimination, the court concluded, is just that: history. The DOJ must now sue states over laws after they pass. In Texas and now North Carolina, the DOJ has loudly expressed its intention to use such lawsuits to continue to control southern election laws. The ACLU and the NAACP have also filed similar lawsuits.
The North Carolina law passed in July. It reduces early voting days, ends same-day registration, and enacts a fairly strict photo identification requirement. Democrats—and African Americans—used the affected processes disproportionately.
Because of the statute the taxpayer-funded lawsuit is built on, Holder has a difficult task. He must prove racist intent, not just discriminatory effect. That’s what makes the accusation Holder made “with sorrow” so grave.
Other aspects of the law eliminate straight-party voting and nullify provisional ballots made in the wrong precinct. The law also ends a program for pre-registering high schooler students in civics classes. While 70 percent of North Carolinians support requiring voters to have photo identification, more than half the state is not pleased with many of the law’s other changes.
But to accuse the legislature of being racist is something else entirely. Affecting and excluding are two separate things, not to mention excluding by color, not party, on purpose. North Carolinians still have 11 days to vote, getting a photo identification card remains free, and finding the right polling place can be easier than finding out what a candidate stands for.
“Most of these things that they’re challenging really have to do more with voting conveniences as opposed to actually denying people the right to vote,” said Gregory Wallace, law professor at the Campbell University School of Law in Raleigh. “None of these things tell people you can’t vote.”
After Holder’s announcement, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory fired back: “I think it’s obviously influenced by national politics since the Justice Department ignores similar laws in other blue states.” Other than North Carolina, just 12 states offer same-day voter registration. Not one is in the South. So while North Carolina is going “backwards,” only it’s voter ID statute might stand out compared to other states.
Absentee voting, used mostly by Republicans, is made easier by the law and won’t require identification, Wallace said. But when getting to the county seat is too much trouble, getting a voter ID card can be complicated. Urban poor don’t have driver’s licenses, and the law doesn’t recognize student IDs. Some elderly born in the state’s rural farming areas managed to live off the grid without today’s common paperwork, including birth certificates. In some of those still-rural counties, offices that issue IDs are only open a few times each month.
But statistics can overrule Holder as well, exposing his own merging of race and politics. During an election, the color of a voter’s skin is not black or white: It’s blue or red. It may not be right, but just like with common redistricting practices, Wallace said, “To discriminate against [people] because they’re Democrats is not a form of race discrimination. … The bottom line is I think it’s going to be difficult for the government to prove its case here.”
See WORLD’s previous reporting on the political and personal challenges in voter identification, fraud, and election reform.