North Carolina’s new voter ID law also cuts the period for early voting and makes other changes in election rules. Does the law discriminate against some voters on the basis of their race? Or is it targeted at Democrats, with any downside for African-Americans simply reflecting the fact that as a group they lean Democratic at the polls?
Perhaps a better question: Should it make any difference?
Racial discrimination in elections is outlawed under the federal Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution. If a law clearly aimed at helping Republican candidates does so by making it harder for some likely Democrats to vote – and many of those affected are African-Americans –that’s racial discrimination no matter how it’s sliced. The upshot is that black voters collectively will face voting barriers higher than their white counterparts.
In signing House Bill 589 into law on Aug. 12, Gov. Pat McCrory offered the rationale that requiring voters to show a photo ID would help prevent voter fraud.
Of course, North Carolina election officials have no evidence that fraud by impersonation – which a photo ID rule could help to prevent – has been any sort of problem here. The governor had little of substance to say about the law’s many other provisions, or their likely impact among groups of voters who have tended to support more Democrats than Republicans in recent years. Those groups, besides African-Americans and Latinos, include college students, the elderly and the poor.
Pushback from the law’s critics has come swiftly, in court challenges spelling out claims of how the law tramples on some citizens’ rights to participate in elections on equal terms.
A federal lawsuit filed by the NAACP’s North Carolina chapter argues that black citizens make up a disproportionate share of voters lacking any of the needed forms of photo ID. Parallel suits have been filed by the state League of Women Voters and the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
Legacies of Bias
Says the NAACP: “The history of racial discrimination in North Carolina has caused African-Americans to have less access to transportation and health care, to be less well-educated, less well-housed, lower-paid, and more likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts. These vestiges of race discrimination make it more difficult for African-Americans to comply with the voter ID provisions of H.B. 589.”
For people with a job and car, showing a driver’s license at the polls might be an unnecessary aggravation. But at least they have an ID that entitles them to go ahead and vote, assuming they’re properly registered. Ditto for people who can afford to travel abroad and who can show their passport.
A poor person who depends on relatives or friends for transportation and who needs one of those state ID cards issued to non-drivers can always ask for a ride to the DMV, just as he or she can ask for a ride to a polling place. Yet that extra step in the process – maybe complicated by additional trips to round up supporting documents — amounts to just enough of a hassle that some people will let it slide.
Even if the hassle doesn’t rise to the level of outrageousness seen during the Jim Crow era, when African-Americans’ attempts to vote could prompt vicious retaliation, the new rules easily could burden prospective black voters as a group more heavily than white. That’s discrimination on its face – and what the law’s critics understandably call voter suppression.
The NAACP faults several other provisions in the new law on similar grounds. For example, a citizen no longer will be allowed to register and vote on the same day during early voting.
“Statistics show that, in 2012, African-Americans accounted for around 41 percent of individuals who used the same-day registration process, even though they make up just 22 percent of the state’s population,” the group’s lawsuit says. Does the pattern highlight the effectiveness of Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts among blacks, especially with President Obama seeking re-election campaign? No doubt – but the motive for scrapping same-day registration is equally clear.
Fewer Voting Days
The same holds true for the downsizing of the popular early voting period, which will be cut from 17 to 10 days (the first week will be dropped). Although Democratic legislators successfully pushed to keep early voting sites open for the same overall number of hours, it stands to reason that with fewer available days the option will be less convenient for some people. The NAACP asserts that 70 percent of black voters in the 2012 general election voted early – so making the option somewhat less convenient could help put a lid on black vote totals.
Legislators trying to do just that would naturally want fewer Sundays during early voting. Those are the days when many African-American churches like to encourage their members to vote under the banner of “Souls to the Polls.” The new law allows for only one early-voting Sunday, rather than two.
Just as the votes cast by African-Americans have been key to Democratic fortunes in recent elections, so too have the votes cast by young people. So it’s no mystery why the law’s backers went out of their way to make it harder for college students to vote. Not only will they have to present photo IDs but their college-issued IDs won’t be accepted – even if issued by one of the state’s public universities or community colleges.
Students from other states could find the new rules especially daunting, even though they’re supposed to be entitled to vote here. The hostility toward college-student voters was on display a few days ago in Boone, where a Republican-controlled local elections board decided to shut down voting sites on the campus of Appalachian State University. A new off-campus precinct will have to accommodate more than 9,000 voters.
Meanwhile, the Republican-majority elections board in Pasquotank County is bending over backwards — too far backwards — to try to short-circuit the City Council candidacy of a student who lives on campus at Elizabeth City State University. Montravias King of Snow Hill, now a senior, has been a regular voter since he first went to college. He has used his campus address, as court rulings say he should be able to do, and as a legal resident he should be entitled to run for local office.
The Pasquotank Board obviously hopes to challenge those precedents, but its actions are of a piece with other efforts to hold down the vote among young people who have had the temerity to support Democratic candidates such as Obama.
Equality at the Polls
Sponsors of the “Voter Information Verification Act” have spoken of their lofty aims: combating fraud, making voting rules standard from county to county, bolstering public confidence in election outcomes. None of that sounds objectionable – except that it amounts to performing surgery on someone who hasn’t even had the sniffles.
What the law’s backers actually were up to became plain in view of their timing. They took a bill simply calling for voter IDs and expanded it to make wholesale changes in the state’s election rules. And they did so in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision sparing states covered by the federal Voting Rights Act from needing to have such changes approved by the U.S. Department of Justice. As one top Republican legislator put it, that court decision cleared the way for “the full bill.”
The NAACP has spearheaded the Moral Monday protests against the legislature’s tax and spending cuts, its denial of a Medicaid expansion that would have aided half-a-million people and its rash, callous cutback in unemployment benefits. It is fighting a good fight in behalf of vulnerable people at risk of being kicked to the curb – people who are in the forefront of the N.C. Council of Churches’ concerns. Now, thanks to the NAACP and its fellow plaintiffs, the state will have to defend its changes to election laws in court.
Politicians long have tried to shape the pool of voters to their advantage, and the courts have allowed some leeway for partisan jockeying. Voting also of course must be kept orderly and honest.
But none of that can be allowed to infringe on people’s rights, regardless of their race or economic standing, to be treated fairly at the polls, able to cast their votes without discriminatory hassles and burdens. The courts have the duty of upholding those rights when the powerful would undercut them for their own purposes.
— Steve Ford, Volunteer Program Associate