By Matt Johnson
Associate Editor, Vol. 21
Contributing Editor, Vol. 22
Election season is upon us, and everything from stickers to lawn signs are meant to encourage the American people to get to the polls. However, there is a disturbing movement across the country, often codified by state legislatures, to discourage certain people from voting.
Rosanell Eaton grew up in the Jim Crow South, the granddaughter of a slave who was one of the first African-Americans to register to vote in her rural corner of North Carolina. As the Los Angeles Times recounts, registering seventy years ago was no small feat. Rosanell had to ride for two hours to the county courthouse and take a literacy test (reciting the preamble of the Constitution) before she could vote.
In general, the voting process today is much easier; yet somehow it has become harder for the now 94-year-old Ms. Eaton, and many other Americans, to vote in 2016. She is one of the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit, North Carolina NAACP v. McCrory, seeking to overturn North Carolina’s voter identification law.
Racial discrimination in voting was prohibited in 1965 by the Voting Rights Act, but that landmark legislation was altered by the controversial 2013 Supreme Court decision Shelby v. Holder. Shelby struck down Section 4 of the Act, which mandated that states with a history of discrimination (such as North Carolina) get pre-approval for changes in their voting procedures from the federal government or a federal court.
Since the 2012 election, sixteen states have new voting restrictions, led by North Carolina’s sweeping voting restrictions. Emboldened by Shelby, the Republican-controlled legislature extended North Carolina’s bill from 12 pages to 40 pages. The law implemented a wide range of restrictive measures including:
- Eliminating same-day registration;
- Reducing the early voting period by one week;
- Eliminating counting of ballots cast by voters out of their home precinct;
- Ending pre-registration for those aged 16 and 17.
At first glance, many of these measures may seem mundane. In 2012, about 900,000 North Carolina voters cast ballots in the seven days of early voting that are now eliminated; about 70 percent of those voters were African-American. In the 2012 and 2008 elections, more than 90,000 North Carolina voters used same-day registration, with African-Americans relying on same-day registration at twice the rate of white voters.
Democracy North Carolina has estimated that “the new voting limitations and polling place problems reduced turnout by at least 30,000 voters in the 2014 election.” The effects were exacerbated by the state’s GOP-drawn congressional map, which was just ruled unconstitutional by a federal court because it packed too many black voters into two overwhelmingly Democratic districts. The legislature now must redraw the boundaries and hold a separate election exclusively for congressional primaries on June 7.
Aside from the large number of voters who did not even make it to the polls in 2014, African-Americans cast 38 percent of the ballots that were rejected due to the new measures although they comprise only 22 percent of registered voters. Democrats as a whole accounted for nearly half of all rejected ballots.
In addition to the aforementioned provisions, a new voter identification law went into effect in January 2016. In order to fulfill that photo ID requirement, Ms. Eaton said she had to drive more than 200 miles and make more than 10 trips to correct her identification because the name on her driver’s license, Rosanell Eaton, is not an exact match of the name on her voter registration card, Rosanell Johnson Eaton, a combination of her maiden and married names.
Republican lawmakers who backed the election changes have said they are aimed at preventing voter fraud. However, cases of voting fraud have been proven exceedingly rare. In fact, from 2000 to 2014 the North Carolina State Board of Elections referred just two cases of voter impersonation, out of a total 35 million votes, for prosecution (or, if you’d rather not read an expert witness report, take John Oliver’s word for it).
Others have provided alternative justifications, such as former NC House Speaker and current Republican U.S. Senator Thom Tillis who called it “restoring confidence in elections.” Although lawmakers have insisted that they had no sweeping goal of disenfranchising voters, a report they provided at trial showed that as many as 224,800 of the state’s 6.4 million registered voters lacked the required identification. The report also found that black voters were more than twice as likely as their white counterparts not to have the necessary identification because of economic or other barriers. Although many of us may take having government-issued photo ID as a given, those without a driver’s license or even members of the armed forces returning from overseas have to navigate a time-consuming cumbersome process filled with fees and deadlines.
But there are already reasons to feel better about this problem. Just before the law was due to be challenged in federal court, legislators abruptly loosened the voter ID requirement, allowing residents without government-issued photo ID to cast a provisional ballot if they filled out a form claiming a “reasonable impediment,” such as lack of proper documents, transportation problems, family obligations, work schedules, illness or disability.
As Jenny Jarvie of the LA Times sees it, the question is whether the new law, as modified, imposes a significant burden on minority voters. Attorneys representing the NAACP argue that the “reasonable impediment” form is vague and that election officials have failed to educate the public on the amended photo ID requirement or offer clear guidelines and training to precinct officials and poll workers.
The trial ended on February 1, and a decision is not expected in time for the North Carolina primary on March 15. The statute’s fate will fall to Judge Schroeder, an appointee of President George W. Bush. According to the New York Times, Judge Schroeder’s ruling will be among the first in the South after the Supreme Court decision that effectively halted the requirement for some jurisdictions with histories of discrimination to receive preclearance for changes to voting procedures. Depending on the outcome, the case could become a blueprint for those challenging voter ID laws across the country, or offer more encouragement to states hoping to make it more difficult for some citizens to exercise their fundamental right to vote.
Does North Carolina Voter ID Law Suppress Minority Votes? A Federal Judge Will Decide (Los Angeles Times, February 4, 2016)
North Carolina NAACP v. McCrory (Moritz College of Law, The Ohio State University)
Shelby v. Holder, 133 U.S. 2612 (2013)
Federal Court Looks at N.C. Voting Law (Wisconsin Gazzette, July 30, 2015)
Alarm Bells from Silenced Voters (Democracy North Carolina, January 7, 2016)
Thousands of Voters Are Disenfranchised by North Carolina’s Voting Restrictions (The Nation, June 16, 2015)
Expert Report by Lorraine C. Minnite, Ph.D., North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP v. McCrory, et al.
What’s At Stake In The Trial Over North Carolina Voting Restrictions (Huffington Post, July 10, 2015)
As Primaries Loom, Voting Rights Face Attacks in North Carolina (Fortune, February 11, 2016)
Arguments Over North Carolina Voter ID Law Begin in Federal Court (New York Times, January 26, 2016)