WASHINGTON -- North Carolina Republicans intentionally discriminated against black voters when they passed a highly restrictive voting law earlier this year, the Justice Department charged in a lawsuit filed Monday.
The lawsuit, filed by attorneys within DOJ's Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of North Carolina, was announced by Attorney General Eric Holder at Justice Department headquarters. Federal officials argue that the law discriminates against minority voters by eliminating a week of early voting, restricting individuals from registering to vote on the same day that they cast their ballots, stopping counties from counting certain provisional ballots and requiring voters to present specific forms of photo identification at polls.
"By restricting access and ease of voter participation, this new law would shrink, rather than expand, access to the franchise," Holder said at the press conference. "And it is especially troubling that the law would significantly narrow the early voting window that enabled hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians, including a disproportionately large number of minority voters, to cast ballots during the last election cycle."
A brief filed by the Justice Department notes that North Carolina has experienced a "substantial rise in voter turnout rates in recent years." African-American voters were far less likely than white voters to show up to polls as recently as the 2004 general election, but that changed in the 2008 and 2012 general elections. The state's own data show that this trend "is due, in part, to the availability and use of early voting," according to the brief.
In 2012, African Americans made up 22 percent of all registered voters in North Carolina, according to state data cited in the brief. Yet they were responsible for about 29 percent of all the early votes cast that autumn, and for a third of the early votes cast during the first week.
The new law cuts the early-voting period by a week. And although it requires the state to provide the same number of hours for early voting over the shorter period, the Justice Department rejects the argument that longer poll hours will make up for fewer days. Citing the example of Florida, where many counties adopted a similar policy last year, the brief notes that Florida voters experienced "the longest wait times of voters in any state during the November 2012 election, with reports of voters leaving the long lines because of family and work obligations and ultimately not casting a ballot."
Ending same-day registration would have a similarly discriminatory effect on black voters, according to the brief. In the general elections of 2008 and 2012, African Americans were about twice as likely as white voters to use same-day registration, according to state data.
The brief also notes that African-American voters are disproportionately likely to lack the specific forms of photo ID required by the new law. And it contends that blacks are more likely to cast provisional ballots from polls within their counties but outside of their precincts -- another practice that the new law prohibits.
As a result, the law will deny or abridge "the right of African Americans to participate equally in the political process," the Justice Department alleged in its brief.
The law is among dozens of restrictive voter policies passed in recent years by Republican-majority state legislatures from Pennsylvania to Texas. Supporters claim that such laws are needed to stamp out voter fraud; critics say that evidence of voter fraud is scarce, and argue that the laws are really intended to erode the electoral power of low-income people and minorities, who are disproportionately likely to vote for Democrats.
Even in this context, North Carolina’s law stands out. Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and author of The Voting Wars, called it the "most sweeping anti-voter law in decades."
In filing the lawsuit, the Justice Department follows on the heels of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union, both of which sued the state over the law last month.
In an interview with reporters on Monday, Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP and the leader of the progressive "Moral Monday" protest movement, denounced the law in stark terms, calling it the "ultimate crime against democracy" and the worst voter suppression law in the country since the Jim Crow era.
To critics like Barber, the law belongs to a long tradition of discrimination against blacks in North Carolina, stretching back to the days of slavery and Reconstruction. The Justice Department brief shines a spotlight on that tradition, noting that the "history of official racial discrimination against African-American citizens in North Carolina with regard to voting is longstanding and well-documented."
But on June 25, the Supreme Court essentially dismissed the relevance of this legacy in a 5-4 decision that struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which required many southern jurisdictions, including 40 counties in North Carolina, to clear changes to their voting policies with the federal government.
Soon after that decision, North Carolina and a number of other Southern states announced plans to pass an array of restrictive voter policies that would likely have failed to gain approval under that law. In response to the decision, Holder promised that the DOJ's lawyers would turn to whatever tools were still available to "stand against discrimination wherever it is found."
In August, the Justice Department sued Texas over its new voter ID law. If the Justice Department can convince a panel of judges that the Texas and North Carolina laws are intentionally discriminatory, the states could once again be required to get approval from the federal government before making changes to their voting policies.
In a joint statement on Monday, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R) and House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) of the North Carolina legislature dismissed the lawsuit as "an obvious attempt to quash the will of the voters and hinder a hugely popular voter ID requirement. The law was designed to improve consistency, clarity and uniformity at the polls and it brings North Carolina's election system in line with a majority of other states."
Holder, however, encouraged those other states to take notice: "To other states considering voting restrictions like North Carolina's, I want to say this: I and my colleagues at every level of the Justice Department will never hesitate to do all that we must to protect the constitutionally guaranteed civil rights of all Americans."