A new era of voter suppression post-Voting Rights Act.
A federal judge on Monday afternoon upheld systemic GOP-passed changes to voter eligibility in North Carolina elections, including an enormously controversial voter identification provision that civil rights groups insist unfairly targets black Americans, minority populations, and economically disparaged demographics statewide.
It is believed that the ruling will likely have serious repercussions politically in a state highly contested in the previous two national elections.
“North Carolina has provided legitimate state interests for its voter ID requirement and electoral system,” Judge Thomas D. Schroeder of Federal District Court in Winston Salem wrote in his 485-page opinion, adding that he did not find North Carolina’s system beyond “the mainstream of other states.”
The law in question appeals a provision allowing citizens to register and vote on the same day, along with reducing the early-voting period by seven days, and the end of preregistration (which allows voters to sign up before their 18th birthdays, something teenagers in Ohio fought hard to obtain).
Most controversially, it leaves intact North Carolina’s voter identification requirement, which legislators had momentarily softened last year.
GOP Governor Pat McCrory predictably praised the ruling in an official statement saying, “this ruling further affirms that requiring a photo ID in order to vote is not only common sense, it’s constitutional.”
— Pat McCrory (@PatMcCroryNC) April 26, 2016
While civil rights advocates have already said they will appeal the decision to the United States Court of Appeals of the Fourth Circuit, located in Richmond, VA, the timing of the ruling in conjunction with November’s elections is problematic; if the Fourth Circuit or the Supreme Court does not intervene, the changes will be in force when voters go to the polls this fall.
North Carolina voters will also be electing a governor in what is expected to be a highly competitive race.
The added weight of the legal precedent set makes this decision even more troubling, as it could be an early foreshadowing of how federal judges issue rulings in response to challenges made to voting laws in the aftermath of a 2013 Supreme Court decision that eviscerated critical portions of the Voting Rights Act, in particular provisions requiring nine states (primarily in the south) to obtain federal approval in advance before changing their election laws.
The ruling, Shelby County v. Holder, was upheld by the Supreme Court in the summer of 2013 by a 5-4 ruling and eliminated the protective measures in the Voting Rights Act known as “preclearance,” which mandated that certain states and local governments had to submit proposed voting changes to the Justice Department or to a federal court in Washington for approval, no matter how big or seemingly insignificant, before they could legally be implemented.
No such requirements now exist and, in states with changing racial, ethnic, and political demographics,
it could swing national and local elections across the country.
“By meticulously targeting measures that were most used by people of color – in addition to imposing a restrictive photo ID requirement – the legislature sought to disturb the levers of power in North Carolina, ensuring only a select few could participate in the democratic process,” said Penda D. Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, a multi-racial civil rights organization, “This fight is not over.”
“Through widespread actions, rallies, marches and protests, we have said all along that we would accept no less than unabridged access to the ballot for all eligible voters,” said Rev. William J. Barber II, the president of the North Carolina chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. adding, “Just like those who carried on before us, we will continue our movement challenging regressive and discriminatory voter suppression tactics on behalf of African Americans, Latinos, seniors, students, and all those for whom democracy has been denied.”
North Carolina’s primary cycle has already seen this legislation in practice at its ugliest, where allegedly a man of Hindu descent was required to spell his name to polling administrator questioning the authenticity of his voter I.D, a scene eerily reminiscent of the vaunted literacy tests deployed throughout the South during the Jim Crow Era deliberately used to deny black Americans and other minorities the right to vote.
Nonetheless, there is some hope. In fall of 2014, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit – where opponents of the law intend to appeal – issued a preliminary injunction forcing the state to temporarily restore a ballot access provision allowing same-day registration. Civil Rights advocates will be hoping to achieve a similar injunction heading into a critical voting season.
President Obama won North Carolina in the 2008 election against Senator John McCain by less than .4% margin.
In 2012, former Gov. Mitt Romney won the state by 2.2%.