A federal judge in North Carolina showed us Monday night why the protections of the Voting Rights Act are still very much-needed.
In a 485-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder upheld the 2013 North Carolina law imposing a new photo ID requirement, along with other regressive moves, that will keep hundreds of thousands of voters of color from making their voices heard in this election. The behemoth opinion was heavily laden with claims about the law, few of them backed up with facts about what happens on the ground.
If the law stands -- plaintiffs have already promised to appeal -- Tar Heel voters won't get to register and vote on the same day this fall, will have fewer opportunities to vote before Election Day, and will no longer be pre-registered before turning 18. Not only that, they'll be asked to show a photo ID that thousands simply don't have, and don't have access to. End result? Over 200,000 citizens are likely to be sent home without having a say in deciding who will represent them at the local, state, and federal levels. And that doesn't even touch on the countless more who could have become a part of the political process through same day registration.
That kind of blanket suppression leaves entire communities silent in our democracy.
Judge Schroeder, in his opinion, claimed that "North Carolina provided legitimate state interests for its voter ID requirement" and that "there is little official discrimination to consider." As such, he let all portions of the state law stand.
But what did the court mean by "official discrimination?" The thousands of Carolinians who've participated in "Moral Monday" protests for more than a year now might say "official discrimination" -- in schools, on policed streets, at the workplace -- is alive and well. But you don't have to attend a rally to appreciate that. Just 10 years ago, our elected representatives in the Congress, concluded after a detailed study, that systemic discrimination persisted at the ballot box sufficient to warrant reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act for another 25 years.
Those lawmakers did not need to uncover statements by state legislators on why they sought to keep African-Americans and Latinos from voting; such smoking guns are rare (not nonexistent) and today's discriminatory measures are generally much more sophisticated. Congress' findings of polling place closings, election postponements, gerrymandered districts, and other discriminatory actions -- including in North Carolina -- covered over 20,000 pages. Evidence of redistricting efforts in the state limiting people of color from electing their candidates of choice -- and the power of Section 5 to stop such measures - demonstrated continued need for the law.
It seems as though Judge Schroeder, in not having uncovered any "official discrimination," took a cue from the Supreme Court's 2013 decision in Shelby Co. v. Holder. There, Chief Justice John Roberts asserted that our country had "changed significantly" and that, despite the ongoing existence of racism, "extraordinary" measures were no longer necessary. The 5-4 majority in Shelby effectively threw out Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a provision that required localities and states with a history of discrimination, including North Carolina, to submit proposed changes in their voting laws and procedures for federal review before implementation, authorizing the Justice Department to stop impermissible measures in their tracks.
Almost immediately after Shelby, handfuls of states passed restrictive voting measures, most notably North Carolina. The sweeping new Carolina law had both a discriminatory intent and effect: we know African-American voters used the voter friendly provisions of the old law at a disproportionately high rate to the rest of the electorate and are much likelier than whites to lack government-issued ID; indeed, even though Black voters comprise 22 percent of registered voters in North Carolina, they comprise 30 percent of those without ID.
Legislators in Raleigh knew exactly what they were doing in passing this law. Judge Richard Posner, the highly respected Seventh Circuit appellate judge whose opinion formed the basis for the Supreme Court's upholding of the first photo ID law, has since denounced these sorts of laws as suppressive. As he found in a recent decision on Wisconsin's photo ID law (an issue still being litigated), "voter impersonation fraud is virtually nonexistent," such laws make it harder for people of color to vote, and fraud allegations purportedly necessitating the laws are "downright goofy, if not paranoid." That's an about-face that comes from seeing the aims and effects of such laws.
Even political admit to it. Todd Allbaugh, former chief of staff to Wisconsin State Sen. Dale Schultz (R), said Republican senators in the state were "giddy" over the prospect of photo ID laws reducing turnout among Democratic voting groups. Indeed, U.S. Rep. Grothman (R-WI) proved the point when saying, in response to the Republican party's chances in the upcoming election, that photo ID laws will "make a little bit of a difference." These signs of "official discrimination," whether in North Carolina or other parts of the country, show that voter suppression laws -- including photo ID requirements -- are aimed at keeping certain groups away from the polls.
Through 2006, the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized four times -- always by overwhelmingly bipartisan votes -- because the law worked. It stopped bad state laws from being passed or implemented, prevented discriminatory practices from taking hold, and moved the country, slowly but surely, toward equality. And some states welcomed it! It held them accountable and provided bright lines on what to do; it ensured elections systems that worked for all eligible voters.
We can't undo Shelby -- and can't undo the thousands of rights lost over the past couple years - but we can move forward with a fix. The Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore many of the former law's protections; but in response to the Supreme Court's call for a more modern, flexible approach, the law would take into account jurisdictions' present and future needs. If passed, it could block the kinds of laws North Carolina passed after Shelby, and ensure that all eligible voters retain full access to their constitutional right to vote.
Call on your members of Congress to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act! For decades, our representatives crossed the partisan aisle to pass important voting rights legislation because it was the right thing to do. It was the American thing to do. They can restore our faith in democracy -- and in a government truly representative of all the people -- by making this move now.