North Carolina’s sweeping package of voting restrictions will likely be in place for this fall’s general election, thanks to a decision Monday night from conservative federal Judge Thomas Schroeder. Voting rights groups are already sounding the alarm about the damage the policies could cause in a high stakes election year.
An appointee of President George W. Bush, Judge Schroeder argued in a nearly 500-page ruling that eliminating same-day voter registration, cutting a full week of early voting, barring voters from casting a ballot outside their home precinct, ending straight-ticket voting, and scrapping a program to pre-register high school students who would turn 18 by Election Day does not overly burden voters of color. He also upheld the state’s strict voter ID requirement, which residents argued was passed with the intention of suppressing African American votes.
North Carolina voters of color and the groups supporting them said Tuesday that they will “immediately” appeal, in hopes of reversing the damage before the general election in November.
“We know that people, particularly African Americans and students, have been disenfranchised by this monster voter suppression law,” said Dr. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP. “Yet the court upheld the most sweeping retrogressive voter suppression that we have seen since the 19th century and Jim Crow. Their decision is wrong.”
A return to Jim Crow elections
This November will be the first election in more than 50 years without a functioning federal Voting Rights Act.
Before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, North Carolina would have had to prove both that they had a compelling reason to pass the host of voting restrictions, and that it wouldn’t disproportionately harm voters of color. But now, absent those federal protections, the burden of proof is on the voters, and the state does not have to support its dubious claim that the intent is combating voter fraud.
Barber told reporters Tuesday that the ruling has motivated him to redouble his efforts to pressure Congress to reauthorize the gutted section of the Voting Rights Act.
“We must demand that the Ryan-McConnell Congress hold hearings and votes to restore Section 5 protection,” he said. “For two years they have refused to do their duty and restore it.”
The lead plaintiff in the case was 95-year-old Rosanell Eaton, who grew up under Jim Crow voter suppression laws, and in her elderly years found herself once again unable to vote in her home state. Because Eaton was delivered by a midwife at home — like many African Americans were at that time — the names on her birth certificate, driver’s license and voter registration card don’t exactly match. It took her nine trips to the DMV, totaling more than 250 miles of driving, to get the ID she needed to vote under North Carolina’s new law.
Her daughter, Armenta Eaton, told ThinkProgress last year, “Both she and I believe she should not have to have gone through these difficult times to exercise her right to vote as a citizen of these United States.”
Growing minority power
The groups backing Eaton, including the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the League of Women Voters, argued in court that Republican lawmakers pushed the voter ID law and other restrictions because voters of color in the state were gaining political power and threatening their majority by overwhelming supporting the Democratic Party. They noted that over the past few decades, both the number of residents of color and the percentage of them who showed up to vote have increased exponentially, thanks in large part to policies like same-day registration that make it easier to vote.
“These are the very measures the legislature sought to repeal — the ones most important for opening the doors of access,” said attorney Denise Lieberman with the Advancement Project, which represented the North Carolina NAACP at the trial. “The conclusion we must draw is that lawmakers knew what they were doing.”
But the judge brushed away these concerns, saying that “North Carolina has provided legitimate State interests for its voter-ID requirement and electoral system” and that “Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate” unconstitutional voter suppression. Judge Schroeder argued that because minority voter participation was not reduced in 2014, despite the law’s restrictions, it disproves the plaintiff’s concerns.
Barber and others pushed back Tuesday against this line of thinking. “Just because we overcame discrimination does not make that discrimination okay,” he said. “We also overcame being raised in segregated, unequal schools, but that doesn’t make school segregation okay. We are quite concerned about that type of rationale in this decision.”
Lawyers for the ACLU say they will appeal this case to the United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, where more progressive judges could overturn parts of the law. The state may then appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could still be trapped in a 4-to-4 deadlock thanks to Congress’ refusal to confirm a new Justice for Antonin Scalia’s seat.
“We’re confident that the voters in this state will eventually be vindicated,” said Southern Coalition for Social Justice senior attorney Allison Riggs.
However, the dispute may not be resolved in time to help voters in this November’s general election, when the plaintiffs worry that so many North Carolina voters of color could be disenfranchised that it will affect the outcome in the crucial swing state.
Fewer than 14,000 voters won the state for President Obama in 2008. Since an estimated 218,000 voters lack the proper ID, the laws could sway both the presidential and governor’s races — where the man who signed the voting restrictions, Gov. Pat McCrory, is seeking reelection.