It is harder to vote in North Carolina these days. On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court, in Shelby v. Holder, gutted a landmark provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A majority of the justices struck down Article 5 of the Act, which had required federal preapproval of changes to voting practices in southern states. Eviscerating Article 5 effectively halted its protections and set the stage for sweeping efforts to disenfranchise minorities, women, the elderly and students. Six weeks later, emboldened by the Court’s ruling, the North Carolina General Assembly passed the nation’s most restrictive voting law all in the name of “preventing voter fraud.”
Lawsuits challenging the law have been filed by various organizations including the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. The ACLU and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice sought to have certain provisions of the law stayed until the trial scheduled for summer of 2015. The request for a stay was denied at the district court level, but the district court’s decision was reversed by a three judge panel at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. On October 8, 2014, the Supreme Court struck down the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that had stayed many of the 2013 North Carolina’s laws restrictions thus instituting widespread voter suppression.
Republican United States Senate candidate and North Carolina Speaker of the House, Thom Tillis, along with North Carolina Senate president pro tem, Republican Phil Berger, Sr., led the charge to pass this restrictive and discriminatory legislation. Tillis, Berger and their supporters claim “voter fraud” is an issue in North Carolina; yet there is no evidence to support that claim. The real reason is more pernicious: barriers to vote keep heavily democratic groups, minorities (African-Americans and Hispanics in particular), women and college students from voting. If you cannot win on the issues, then control who votes.
The law’s restrictions are as follows: no same day voter registration; preregistration during early voting for 16 and 17-year-olds was eliminated; it shortens early voting by one week; out-of-precinct provisional voting was eliminated; and counties cannot extend polling place hours by one hour on Election Day in extraordinary circumstances (long lines). Most importantly, the law now permits anyone registered in the country to challenge a voter; previously the challenger needed to be registered to vote in the same precinct as the person he or she was challenging. Starting in 2016, ID will be required to vote. There are six acceptable forms of ID: 1) an unexpired North Carolina Driver’s License, 2) United States Passport, 3) a Veterans Identification Card, 4) an unexpired North Carolina Identification Card, 5) a United States Military Identification Card and 6) Tribal Identification Card. All of these forms of ID cost money and are tantamount to a ‘poll tax,’ which the Constitution forbids.
The one documented case of voter fraud in North Carolina involved an absentee ballot. Historically absentee ballots are heavily Republican. If voter fraud were really an issue, absentee ballots would have been addressed more extensively in the legislation. Republicans ignore this clear contradiction and choose to make up stories about how “possible non-citizens” and “people are admitting to voter fraud” in an attempt to ride a wave of bigotry and xenophobia to victory.
On October 8th, when the Supreme Court lifted the stay on North Carolina’s law, it gave no explanation, but Justice Ginsberg offered a scathing dissent, echoing the Fourth Circuit’s majority opinion. According to a www.pbs.org article from October 9th, Justice Ginsberg argued eliminating same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting risked significantly reducing opportunities for black voters, likely in violation of the Voting Rights Act; and, Justice Ginsberg writes, “I would not displace that record-based reasoned judgment.” Proponents of the law argued changing the law this close to the election would create mass confusion, but possible confusion is a spurious explanation for voter suppression. Of course, Americans for Prosperity sent out a mailer with misinformation, but Republicans ignore this real confusion.
The law has a disproportionate effect on African-Americans because, according to an October 26, 2014, article on www.msnbc.com, they make up 41% of voters who use same day registration. In addition, African-Americans cast nearly a third of out-of-precinct votes despite of making up only 22% of the population.
I witnessed the inequities of the law firsthand during the first day of early voting in North Carolina on Thursday, October 23rd. I voted in Winston-Salem at the Forsyth County Government Center. Several African-American voters told me they were told by people outside the polling place that it would take two hours to vote. I, a clearly upper-middle-class white man, was told forty-five minutes to an hour; it took fifty-five minutes. I have heard other similar stories of purposeful misinformation given to minority voters from through out the state.
In Boone, North Carolina, the Board of Elections tried to move a polling site located at Appalachian State University. The polling site draws primarily college students, and most of those students vote for Democrats. The Board’s efforts proved unsuccessful as a local Superior Court judge ruled the polling place must stay at Appalachian State, but do not be surprised if Tillis, Berger and others in the final days before the election file another frivolous lawsuit to keep college students from voting.
What the future holds for voting in North Carolina is unknown. What is known is that the damaging and chilling effects of this law will be felt for decades, even if the law is overturned this summer. Attempts to disenfranchise specific groups of voters will undoubtedly suppress voting in these communities for many generations.
Michael is a lawyer in North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter @slnc01 and on his blog at southernlawyernc.blogspot.com.