Only rarely does the United States Commission on Civil Rights hold hearings outside of Washington D.C. In February they came to town, convening in Raleigh to hear testimony about obstacles to voter access. Notably, former NC Supreme Court Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson serves as Vice Chair of this commission. Experts from all over the country gathered to testify.
Gerrymandering, a hot topic in a handful of states including North Carolina, was not at issue. Rather, this hearing focused on barriers that keep people, and especially minorities, from voting. Specifically, the commission heard about voter access in light of a change to federal law brought about by the ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, a US Supreme Court case decided in 2013. (133 S. Ct. 2612 (2013)).
Prior to the ruling in Shelby County, elections in several states, including North Carolina, were governed by a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which required “preclearance” for any changes to voting practices or election laws. This “preclearance” was required because of a demonstrated history of discriminatory practices that posed obstacles to voting for minority voters. In Shelby, the US Supreme Court held that this protection was not only no longer needed, but was unconstitutional because it infringed on state’s rights.
The Commission gathered to assess access to the polls by minority voters in the wake of Shelby County and the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act. They heard testimony of election officials from across the country who defended the election practices in their own states, and from civil rights attorneys who argued that minority populations are routinely disadvantaged at the poll. The minority populations described as facing obstacles included people of color living in the south, but they also included voters who are differently-abled or disabled, elderly voters, and Native American voters living on reservations. Discrimination at the polls was described by Dale Ho, Director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, as uniquely without remedy: when practices that block access to the polls are later found to be unconstitutional or discriminatory, new elections are not held. There is nothing to be done. Discrimination carries the day.
Leaders in North Carolina wasted no time changing election laws and implementing new policies and procedures after Shelby County. Immediately, strict voter ID requirements were put into place, same day voter registration was eliminated, early voting was cut drastically, and polling locations were moved out of neighborhoods to which minority voters had easy access. Many of these changes brought forth in what has widely become known as the Monster Vote Suppression were struck down as unconstitutional by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in North Carolina State Conference of NAACP v. McCrory (831 F.3d 204, 214 (4th Cir. 2016) (“NAACP v McCrory”). The court found that the legislature knew good and well that the changes they were making would disproportionately affect African American voters because they had asked for and received data on the racial implications. (NAACP v. McCrory, 831 F.3d at 216). Additionally, they made a special effort to protect points of access or voting practices (such as absentee voting) that were disproportionately utilized by white voters.
North Carolina attorney Anita Earls testified to the significant obstacles to voting that are still faced by minority voters in North Carolina, and across the country. She testified about those practices that keep minority voters from voting: felon disenfranchisement, strict photo ID requirements, the improper purging of legally registered voters, and voter registration and assignment problems. She also testified about those practices that simply make it more difficult for minority voters to vote: long lines at the polls, too few ballots, the movement of precincts, false claims that registered voters were non-citizens, driven challenges to properly cast votes by state leaders, and changes to state law which unnecessarily politicize the Election Administration. Earls testified as one who has 30 years of experience litigating voting rights cases, and concluded that minority voters face significant barriers.
The NC Council of Churches took a stand on the absolute necessity of protecting voting rights in 1961, before the passage of the Voting Rights Act: “Let us remove any intimidation or artful barriers and welcome all citizens to full participation in citizenship, particularly at the ballot boxes during election.” It was this sentiment that the NC Council of Churches shared during public testimony before the commission. Artful barriers, those obstacles to voter access that hide behind a majestic façade or pretentious rhetoric, must fall. And they must fall swiftly because remedy is hard to come by.