It’s ghoulish to think about, but everyone has heard of dictatorial regimes that will execute a democracy-minded dissenter and then supposedly make the martyr’s family pay for the bullets.
Then there’s the N.C. General Assembly, which hires its own private lawyers to defend brazenly anti-democratic laws – and sends taxpayers the bill.
Legislators could rely on the state Department of Justice, which is full of lawyers with a responsibility to defend challenges to state statutes. They could turn to the General Assembly’s own staff attorneys.
But Justice is headed by the state’s elected attorney general, Roy Cooper, whose view is that sweeping election law changes enacted this year are a jumble of bad policies. The legislature’s Republican leaders don’t trust Cooper, a Democrat and prospective 2016 candidate for governor, to oversee a vigorous defense of the constitutionality of those changes. Neither do they appear to be all that confident in the lawyers who already work for them.
Instead, they’re turning to outside counsel – as it happens, outside counsel who are well-connected Republicans – to argue that the new voter ID law, with all its intertwined provisions clearly meant to hold down the number of Democratic voters, gets over the constitutional bar.
Already, the legislature has paid more than $1.6 million to Raleigh-based lawyers to defend redistricting maps that opponents say are riddled with partisan gerrymandering. That’s according to The News & Observer of Raleigh, which reports the same firm now has been hired to try to keep the voter ID law on the books. Not counting a 10 percent discount to be granted on the firm’s monthly bills, its lawyers will charge between $305 and $405 an hour.
They’ll be trying to convince the courts that the U.S. Justice Department has it all wrong.
In a lawsuit filed on Sept. 30, the department alleges broad and deliberate violations of the federal Voting Rights Act and of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which combine to guarantee equal access to the ballot box regardless of race.
The federal complaint follows on the heels of similar suits filed by civil rights organizations, including the state chapter of the NAACP.
The administration of Gov. Pat McCrory, who signed the voter ID measure into law when it came to him as 49-page House Bill 589, is seeking to have the suits thrown out. McCrory’s office also has hired an outside counsel, from South Carolina, at $360 an hour.
Although the law’s defenders haven’t spelled out their strategy, it’s easy to see where they’re headed.
They’ll claim the voter ID requirement – which critics call the most stringent in the country — is merely a sensible safeguard against fraud. They’ll claim that shortening the period for early voting and ending the ability during that period to register and vote on the same day makes for a more uniform and efficient process. They’ll claim that any disproportional effect to hold down the number of votes cast by African-Americans is just coincidence.
With the wildly contorted voting district boundaries it drew after Republicans took control in 2010, the legislature showed its eagerness to shape the ground rules for elections to Republican advantage – a classic partisan strategy used by Democrats as well when they’ve had a chance, but with this redistricting carried to an extreme.
Since black voters tend to lean Democratic, suppressing the number of ballots they cast is right in line with a strategy to boost Republican chances. The same could be said about the ballots of lower-income people and the elderly (yes, a fair number of black North Carolinians are poor and elderly as well). The same could be said about college students (and North Carolina has some public campuses where black students predominate).
All these groups will, on balance, have a harder time producing a valid photo ID when the ID rule takes effect in 2016. But members of racial minorities in particular are whom the Voting Rights Act is meant to protect.
The Justice Department’s analysis makes it plain that the law’s changes are likely to reduce the number of votes cast by blacks below what it otherwise would have been.
For example, the first week of early voting has been relatively more popular with African-Americans than with whites. But the law cuts early voting from 17 days – as provided since 2001 – to 10 days. In the process, it eliminates a Sunday voting opportunity. That will impede “Souls to the Polls” efforts that are mainstays of black churches.
Through the hoops
Requiring someone to show a photo ID – typically a driver’s license – in order to vote will be a non-issue for most folks, although the new rule could clog up polling places with longer lines.
But when voter registration lists and Division of Motor Vehicles records were cross-checked, the State Board of Elections found some 318,000 eligible voters as of March who didn’t have a driver’s license or non-driving DMV identity card. An outsized share were African-American.
A registered voter without a driver’s license who shows the right paperwork will be able to get an identity card for free. However, the Justice Department had this to say in its Sept. 30 complaint:
“In 10 North Carolina counties, the only DMV office is open only once per month. Four of these counties are among the 10 North Carolina counties that have the highest percentage of African-American voting-age populations in the State, including Bertie County, which has the highest at 60.7 percent. Four counties’ DMV offices are open only two or three days per month, and in five counties, the DMV office is open only one or two days per week. Only 18 of North Carolina’s 100 counties have DMV sites that offer weekend hours.”
So in some of the state’s most remote – and poorest – counties, going to the DMV to secure an ID card that allows someone to vote might not be a simple proposition. Even in a locale with DMV offices aplenty, the hassle potential seems high, what with lines of folks trying to complete regular DMV business, validation of required documents and so forth.
As one of his first objectives when he took office in January, McCrory declared he wanted to “fix DMV” and give it more of a customer-service slant. Now he should make sure each DMV office is well-equipped to handle applications for non-driving ID cards – perhaps separating those “customers” from folks who need to take written tests and eye exams, for example, and with enough staff to maintain regular hours.
The voter ID law is wholly unnecessary – instances of fraud via impersonation, which is what an ID rule can help deter, are practically non-existent. And despite supporters’ claims that the law is a basic, commonsense safeguard, it ranges far afield in making changes that serve little purpose other than to boost the chances of Republican candidates and to comport with conservative ideology.
The NC Council of Churches, along with other social justice-minded groups, will be working to counterbalance the law via voter education and registration campaigns. The Council sees any law that makes it harder for people to cast honest votes – especially people who have had to cope with more than their share of disadvantages – as an unfair power grab. Unfortunately, taxpayers who belong to the Council’s member churches will have to help foot the bill for lawyers whose clients are the grabbers.