North Carolina Republican leaders who were waiting for a signal from the U.S. Supreme Court to forge ahead with a photo ID law for voters have gotten their wish. Sadly, the upshot is likely to be that the pool of low-income, elderly and minority voters will shrink. In partisan terms, that may suit Republican purposes, but it fails to keep faith with the principle that opportunities to cast honest, accurately counted votes should not be hindered.
The court’s signal came as it invalidated part of the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act. The U.S. Justice Department will not be able to exercise its authority to review proposed changes in states’ voting statutes until Congress revises the formula for deciding which states and jurisdictions will be covered. Given the partisan tensions on Capitol Hill, no one should be holding his or her breath waiting for agreement on that rewrite.
So, North Carolina (where election law changes in 40 counties come under Justice’s scrutiny) can impose a new requirement on voters without having to convince the department that the rule isn’t racially discriminatory. Maybe they weren’t saying it publicly, but the reaction of key GOP legislators seems to have been along the lines of “Oh, happy day!” The only recourse for voter ID opponents will be to challenge the law in court after it’s on the books.
People at society’s margins, many of them racial minorities, are less likely to have the required photo IDs even when they meet all the other requirements for voting. Getting the IDs could prove inconvenient or expensive.
Supporters of the photo ID proposal know this full well, and also know that such voters tend to lean Democratic. That’s the real reason behind the push for the law – not the prospect of impersonators showing up to cast fraudulent ballots, a crime that rarely occurs. And just as African-Americans as a group likely would see diminished access to the polls if faced with a photo ID law, so would Latino citizens whose strength as a voting bloc is worrisome to Republicans pushing for harsh anti-immigration measures.
Within the lines
North Carolina’s other major voting rights issue involves a pending challenge to the voting district boundaries drawn by the Republican-controlled General Assembly after the 2010 census. In an effort to maximize GOP fortunes, boundary lines were drawn in ways that concentrate minority voters into racially identifiable districts. The stated intent was to help Republicans and hurt Democrats – the traditional live-by-the-sword, die-by-the-sword ethic of redistricting. But the effect, as opponents are arguing in court, is to devalue the votes of black citizens by reducing their influence.
The Democratic-controlled Justice Department did give its approval to the GOP-drawn maps – a curious call, but one suggesting that Republican legislators at least took steps to give their gerrymandering a veneer of legality. Absent the Voting Rights Act, they would have had to answer to no one except the courts.
The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling on the VRA, in a case brought by a county in Alabama, faulted the act for relying on outdated voting and registration patterns to decide which states and counties would be covered. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., writing for the majority, correctly noted the big changes in those patterns since the act’s inception in 1965. Black Americans do not face anywhere near the obstacles many of them faced back then to participating in this country’s democracy.
Still, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued in dissent, Congress has had many chances to update the act’s coverage formula. It chose not to do so, most recently when it reauthorized the act in 2006 for 25 years.
Ginsburg’s point was that under the Constitution, this should have been Congress’ call to make. And why not? Perhaps lawmakers believed that data from the 1960s and 1970s still served as a fair indicator of where racial discrimination against voters was likely to occur. Perhaps they despaired of coming up with a better formula. And in any case, the law provides that jurisdictions with good records can be exempted from Justice Department oversight, while those where problems are shown can be newly included.
The court could well have deferred to Congress and let the law’s flexibility play out. Instead, self-styled conservative justices decided their wisdom should trump that of the legislative branch. Will those justices be as assertive when and if they pass judgment on racially tinged gerrymanders drawn to boost Republican candidates?
— Steve Ford, Volunteer Program Associate