By the time last year’s edition of the NC General Assembly finished its work, it was as though the laws and policies by which this state is governed had been run through a conservative wringer.
Taxes and budgeting. Health care. Unemployment benefits. Public schools. Environmental protection. In these key areas and others, the Republican-controlled legislature put its stamp, in accord with the conservative belief that when it comes to government, less is better.
Smaller government, though, can lead to the neglect of what should be public responsibilities to look out for the interests of all citizens, not just of those who can successfully look out for themselves. Thousands of “Moral Monday” participants in Raleigh last spring and last summer, many of them aligned with the NC Council of Churches, weren’t going to tolerate that neglect without protest.
They criticized tax cuts that meant the state would have less money for key services, including public education. They criticized harsh cutbacks in unemployment benefits and the state’s decision to forgo a federally funded expansion of Medicaid.
And they criticized as well the changes to voting laws that will make it harder for candidates out of sync with the GOP majority to succeed at the polls.
Those changes include the now-notorious requirement that in-person voters show a driver’s license or other form of government-issued photo ID such as a non-driver’s identity card or a passport. The ID rule has been touted as a way to prevent fraud. Yet, the facts suggest that fraud by voter impersonation, which making someone show a photo ID would help deter, occurs so rarely as to be insignificant as a threat to election integrity.
The rule in practice is likely to mean that some not-insignificant number of registered voters will be deterred from casting their ballots because they don’t have the necessary documents and can’t obtain them without a hassle that leads them to say, “Forget it!”
Wrong kinds of voters?
This pool of would-be voters tends to be poorer than average, and drawn more heavily from among African-Americans and Hispanics, the elderly and the young. In recent elections they’ve been inclined to favor Democratic candidates – meaning that in Republican eyes, they’re dispensable.
Civil rights groups and the U.S. Department of Justice are challenging the voter ID law as unfairly constricting the right to vote. As to the law’s partisan overtones, unfortunately they couldn’t be clearer. They dovetail with tactics employed in other states under Republican control.
The Pennsylvania example is telling: That’s where the House majority leader was on record as predicting that the state’s voter ID law would ensure a victory for Mitt Romney.
The gentleman was engaged in wishful thinking, as it turned out, but it could also be said that he let the cat out of the bag. Now, in what could be a major turn in the
legal tug-of-war over voter ID, a Pennsylvania judge has ruled that the state’s law infringes on voters’ constitutional rights.
As it happens, the majority leader’s cynical take on the law’s effects didn’t figure in the ruling. Judge Bernard McGinley (who had presided over a lengthy trial) discounted notions that the law was meant to disenfranchise minorities or likely Democratic voters – “the House majority leader’s unfortunate comments notwithstanding.”
What the judge found compelling was evidence depicting the actual hardships many people would face if they wanted to be allowed to vote. Those hardships cut across party lines.
McGinley noted the scarcity and irregular hours of driver’s license centers where people could get the required IDs. He noted the state’s failure to ramp up its driver’s license operations to accommodate the new business.
Customer service — not
“Many voters are not able to travel to a (driver’s license center) due to physical constraints caused by age or disability,” the judge wrote. “Presuming applicants are able to get to a DLC, their ordeal is just beginning. In addition to difficulties inherent in transport during such limited hours, and with limited physical capabilities, PennDOT does not have designated employees to serve customers who come for free photo IDs for voting purposes.”
The judge also made a point of explaining why he ruled the way he did, even though the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a voter ID law enacted in Indiana. The Indiana case didn’t include evidence that voters were being disenfranchised, he wrote. The case before him did.
A state court ruling in Pennsylvania of course has no direct bearing on the fate of North Carolina’s voter ID requirement. Still, Judge McGinley’s critique of his state’s law sets a template that could influence other judges wrestling with the same issues. If those judges are of the federal variety, North Carolina could be affected.
Writing for The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen put the Pennsylvania ruling in context: “The takeaway here is inescapable. If they want to see these laws survive, Republicans pushing for them across the nation will have to put their money where their mouths are and properly fund the infrastructure required in each states to actually make it easier for registered voters to get new cards. Never mind the proof of racial animus or partisan effect — the fact that these measures are consistently imposed without such financial support from legislatures tells you how serious their supporters are about actually improving the accuracy of voting.”
Last year’s Moral Monday demonstrators probably weren’t inclined to slice and dice the constitutional nuances of voter ID. To them, it was obvious what the new requirement was about: Holding down vote totals among North Carolinians who could be expected to take a dim view of the conservative agenda.
Over the weeks of protests, 945 people were arrested after they entered the Legislative Building, trooped to the second-floor rotunda between the House and Senate chambers, and disobeyed orders to get out.
C. Colon Willoughby, the Wake County district attorney, has noted that the protesters could have been issued citations, rather than being arrested and hauled off for processing. That would have allowed Willoughby’s office and the court system to keep their focus on crimes with actual victims, rather than on prosecuting people seeking to fully exercise their rights of speech and assembly.
The cases have proceeded slowly, with a mix of convictions, acquittals and plea bargains. But now there are signs that the logjam might be ready to break.
Following the Jan. 21 acquittal of five defendants who were among 57 demonstrators arrested on May 20, the Wake D.A.’s office signaled that enough was close to enough. Charges against the remaining defendants in that group would be dismissed, the office announced, acknowledging that the evidence was insufficient to proceed against each of the individuals who’d been busted that evening on charges that included trespassing and failure to disperse.
The prosecutors’ task could become only more difficult, as they reckon with scores more defendants. Here’s something for Willoughby and his associates to keep in mind: These demonstrations were vocal, true enough, but they were peaceable. The work of the General Assembly continued without obstruction.
Some demonstrators may have assumed they’d be arrested, and willingness to accept an appropriate penalty is a hallmark of civil disobedience. Still, when the evidence is skimpy, when nobody was hurt and when the court system’s resources are being diverted from more serious matters, dismissal of all remaining Moral Monday charges looks like it would be a fair outcome for all involved.