Let’s summarize a federal appeals court’s decision striking down much of North Carolina’s omnibus voter suppression law in a single gif:
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit’s opinion in North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP v. McCrory is nothing short of a beat down. The court does not simply tear apart major provisions of the law, it catches state lawmakers at the center of a conspiracy to disenfranchise black voters, and it calls them out onto the carpet for it. By the time the court is done scraping the bloody mass of what was once North Carolina’s attempts to justify this law off the floor, the state’s leadership has been thoroughly shamed.
The court’s opinion — primarily written by Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, a Clinton appointee — is rooted in an important understanding of how race and partisanship interact in states like North Carolina with large minority populations. Race is a very close proxy for political views. Black voters overwhelmingly prefer Democrats, and white voters, at least in North Carolina, tend to prefer Republicans. Thus, if Republican lawmakers want to improve their chances of winning elections, they can do so by enacting voting laws that disproportionately disenfranchise African-Americans. As Motz writes, “polarization renders minority voters uniquely vulnerable to the inevitable tendency of elected officials to entrench themselves by targeting groups unlikely to vote for them.”
Such efforts to use race as a proxy for partisan preference, moreover, violate the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act even if the lawmakers who enacted the law did not have hate in their hearts. It does not matter that the lawmakers in this case appear to have targeted black voters because they are Democrats, and not because they are black. All that matters is that the voter suppression law at issue in this case was enacted with the purpose of making it harder for African-Americans to vote.
And boy was it ever.
As Judge Motz lays out the facts of this case, it’s hard not to come away with the conclusion that North Carolina’s lawmakers wanted to get caught engaging in unlawfully racial discrimination. Just one day after the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, effectively eliminating federal supervision that could have halted this voter suppression law before it ever took effect, “a leader of the party that newly dominated the legislature (and the party that rarely enjoyed African American support) announced an intention to enact what he characterized as an ‘omnibus’ election law.”
It’s hard not to come away with the conclusion that North Carolina’s lawmakers wanted to get caught engaging in unlawfully racial discrimination.
Before enacting that law, moreover, “the legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices.” After receiving that data, “the General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration in five different ways, all of which disproportionately affected African Americans.” Indeed, this data appears to have guided the state’s lawmakers in drafting a law that would have maximal impact on African-Americans.
The law did not simply contain a voter ID provision. Rather “the legislature amended the bill to exclude many of the alternative photo IDs used by African Americans” while simultaneously retaining “only the kinds of IDs that white North Carolinians were more likely to possess.” (Although, in fairness, this provision was later watered down.)
The legislature’s data on racial voting patterns showed that “African Americans disproportionately used the first seven days of early voting,” and so “the General Assembly amended the bill to eliminate the first week of early voting.” The data showed that “African American voters disproportionately used [same-day registration] when it was available,” and so same-day registration was cut as well. The law also eliminated out-of-precinct voting, which “required the Board of Elections in each county to count the provisional ballot of an Election Day voter who appeared at the wrong precinct, but in the correct county, for all of the ballot items for which the voter was eligible to vote.” African-Americans, meanwhile, were especially likely to take advantage of this practice.
Yet for all these changes, the lawmakers exempted absentee voting from the law’s new voter ID restriction, and it did so after discovering “that African Americans did not disproportionately use absentee voting; whites did.” Thus, as Motz summarizes the facts of the case, “the General Assembly enacted legislation restricting all — and only — practices disproportionately used by African Americans.”
Most voting rights cases are hard. They require careful dives into a state’s history and into past voting practices and into the possible motives of legislators. What’s shocking about this case is how easy it turns out to be once Judge Motz lays out the facts. McCrory is a beat down because the state made its intentions so obvious in this case. The result is a major victory for voting rights.
McCrory is not, however, a total victory for voting rights. Despite the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County, current law still permits a state that is caught engaging in intentional race discrimination to be brought back under federal supervision. The court declines to invoke this provision, thus potentially enabling North Carolina lawmakers to enact more voter suppression laws in the future, provided that they behave more subtly.
But Friday is still a great day for the voters of North Carolina. Their elected officials tried to rig future elections, and now those lawmakers have failed.