North Carolina’s Attack on Voting Rights

A new law rushed through by North Carolina Republicans contains a laundry list of measures brazenly designed to target Democratic voters. Jamelle Bouie on the bill so extreme Hillary Clinton is getting involved.

For the first time since her 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton has stepped into the partisan politics of the moment. Speaking to the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco yesterday, the former secretary of State slammed a “sweeping effort to construct new obstacles to voting, often under cover of addressing a phantom epidemic of ‘election fraud.’” What’s more, she argued, we must fix the “hole opened up” by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted a core provision of the Voting Rights Act. Otherwise, she warned, “[C]itizens will be disenfranchised, victimized by the law instead of served by it and that progress, that historical progress toward a more perfect union, will go backwards instead of forwards.”

That Clinton gave a speech on voting rights was fortuitous, since yesterday was also when North Carolina Republicans passed a sweeping set of changes to the state’s election law. These measures were proposed just one week after the Court’s ruling, and were rushed through the state legislature. GOP Gov. Pat McCrory calls them “common sense” measures, designed to “ensure the integrity” of the ballot box and “provide greater equality in access to voting to North Carolinians.” And that’s true, if you rob those words of their actual meaning.

The centerpiece of the law is a strict new mandate for voter identification, that’s more notable for what it bans than what it permits. Of the various forms of state-issued ID, only four are valid for voting: driver’s licenses, passports, veteran’s IDs, and tribal cards. Everything else is unacceptable. This includes college IDs, public or municipal employee IDs, ID from public-assistance agencies, and out-of-state driver’s licenses.

It’s no accident that those are the excluded categories. As with similar laws in other states, the restrictions target Democratic voters, from students and young people—who are more likely to rely on university-issued identification—to public employees and the poor. And of course, a large share of these voters are black and Latino. Overall, the state estimates that as many as 318,000 voters could lack (PDF) appropriate identification.

Echoing many supporters of voter identification, Governor McCrory points to other activities that require photo ID: “Common practices like boarding an airplane and purchasing Sudafed require photo ID, and we should expect nothing less for the protection of our right to vote.” But voting is just that, a right, and restricting particular kinds of ID—used by particular kinds of people—without expanding access to other forms of identification is an obvious attempt to make voting hard for some and not others.

Indeed, the other provisions of the law make it plain that this was the intent. Governor McCrory’s “common sense” initiative bans paid voter-registration drives, removes a week from the early voting period (which was a popular option for black voters in 2008 and 2012), eliminates straight-ticket voting, repeals out-of-precinct voting, repeals a mandate for high-school voter-registration drives (again, because Republicans don’t want young people participating), eliminates flexibility in early-voting hours, and makes it more difficult for precincts to designate additional voting sites for the elderly or voters with disabilities.

It also empowers election vigilantes like True the Vote, who have been accused of voter intimidation, giving ample room to anyone who wants to challenge the voting credentials of their fellow citizen. It authorizes poll observers, expanding their range and authority, an expands the scope of who can examine registration records and challenge voters, and it allows voters to be challenged by any registered voter in their county without cause.

These measures are meant to prevent voter fraud, which is nonexistent in the state. Of the 6,947,317 ballots cast in the 2012 election, only 121 were referred to the North Carolina Board of Elections for fraud—an incidence rate of 0.00174 percent. Likewise, in the 2010 election, only 28 cases were reported out of 3.79 million ballots, a rate of 0.000739 percent.

And, as the icing on the cake, the law also makes room for independent groups to spend as much as they’d like in North Carolina elections, ending public financing programs, raising contribution limits, and eliminating disclosure requirements. It’s a wet kiss to powerful interests as well as an attack on voting.

There’s no question that these proposals will result in long lines, unequal access, and unfair challenges, all of which will disproportionately affect blacks and other minorities. And while we can disagree over whether this counts as “suppression,” it’s clear that North Carolina Republicans have passed the most aggressively anti-voter law in the country, surpassing Texas in its gleeful attempts to rig the game. Indeed, under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which required Southern states with a history of racial discrimination to pre-approve election laws with the Justice Department, this would have never passed federal muster.

The good news is that groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP have filed suit against the state. “It is an outright attempt to manipulate voting,” said North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William Barber in a press conference this afternoon, “... a vulgar misuse of political power designed to manipulate and rig elections.” Likewise, in a statement, Advancement Project codirector Penda Hair said that the law’s “only result” was to “make voting disproportionately harder for voters of color, young people, seniors, people with disabilities, and low-income people.”

In the meantime, North Carolinians will have to live in a state that doesn’t respect their right to participate. And worse, we should expect similar behavior from other states that were under federal preclearance before the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County. Contra John Roberts, it’s not that these states are ripe with racists, but that 40 years isn’t enough time to break the power dynamics of the past. Congress understood this in 2006, when it reauthorized the Voting Rights Act for another 25 years, after logging hundreds of hours of testimony on the persistence of voting discrimination.

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We’re only 50 years removed from Jim Crow, and history has a strong grasp. Yes, we have an African-American president. But we also have deep-seated racial inequality. To think we’ve overcome this—to think it no longer matters for the present—is worse than ignorant, it’s naive.