This post first appeared in The Nation.
I’ve been in Texas researching the history of the Voting Rights Act at the LBJ Library. As I’ve been studying how the landmark civil rights law transformed American democracy, I’ve also been closely following how Republicans in North Carolina — parts of which were originally covered by the VRA in 1965 — have made a mockery of the law and its prohibition on voting discrimination.
Last week, the North Carolina legislature passed the country’s worst voter suppression law after only three days of debate. Rick Hasen of Election Law Blog called it “the most sweeping anti-voter law in at least decades.” The bill mandates strict voter ID to cast a ballot (no student IDs, no public employee IDs, etc.), even though 318,000 registered voters lack the narrow forms of acceptable ID according to the state’s own numbers and there have been no recorded prosecutions of voter impersonation in the past decade. The bill cuts the number of early voting days by a week, even though 56 percent of North Carolinians voted early in 2012. The bill eliminates same-day voter registration during the early voting period, even though 96,000 people used it during the general election in 2012 and states that have adopted the convenient reform have the highest voter turnout in the country. African-Americans are 23 percent of registered voters in the state, but made up 28 percent of early voters in 2012, 33 percent of those who used same-day registration and 34 percent of those without state-issued ID.
And that’s just the start of it. In short, the bill eliminates practically everything that encourages people to vote in North Carolina, replaced by unnecessary and burdensome new restrictions. At the same time, the bill expands the influence of unregulated corporate influence in state elections. Just what our democracy needs — more money and less voting!
“I want you to understand what this bill means to people,” said Representative Mickey Michaux (D-Durham), the longest-serving member of the North Carolina House and a veteran of the civil rights movement who grew up in the Jim Crow South. “We have fought for, died for and struggled for our right to vote. You can take these 57 pages of abomination and confine them to the streets of Hell for all eternity.”
Here are the details of everything bad about the bill, via North Carolina Policy Watch. It’s a very long list:
- The end of pre-registration for 16 & 17 year olds
- A ban on paid voter registration drives
- Elimination of same day voter registration
- A provision allowing voters to be challenged by any registered voter of the county in which they vote rather than just their precinct
- A week sliced off Early Voting
- Elimination of straight party ticket voting
- A provision making the state’s presidential primary date a function of the primary date in South Carolina
- A provision calling for a study (rather than a mandate) of electronic candidate filing
- An increase in the maximum campaign contribution to $5,000 (the limit will continue to increase every two years with the Consumer Price Index from the Bureau of Labor Statistics)
- A provision weakening disclosure requirements for “independent expenditure” committees
- Authorization of vigilante poll observers, lots of them, with expanded range of interference
- An expansion of the scope of who may examine registration records and challenge voters
- A repeal of out-of-precinct voting
- A repeal of the current mandate for high-school registration drives
- Elimination of flexibility in opening early voting sites at different hours within a county
- A provision making it more difficult to add satellite polling sites for the elderly or voters with disabilities
- New limits on who can assist a voter adjudicated to be incompetent by court
- The repeal of three public financing programs
- The repeal of disclosure requirements under “candidate specific communications.”
“We will see long lines, many citizens turned away and not allowed to vote, more provisional ballots cast but many fewer counting, vigilante observers at the polling place and all disproportionately impacting black voters,” says Anita Earls, executive director of the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice and a former deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Clinton administration. “This new law revives everything we have fought against for the past ten years and eliminates everything we fought for.”
The legislation should be a wake-up call for Congress to get serious about resurrecting the Voting Rights Act and passing federal election reform. Six Southern states have passed or implemented new voting restrictions since the Supreme Court’s decision last month invalidating Section 4 of the VRA, which will go down in history as one of the worst rulings in the past century. Voting rights groups (and perhaps the federal government) will soon challenge at least some of the new restrictions through a preliminary injunction, others sections of the VRA, or the state constitution. But if Section 5 of the VRA was still operable, North Carolina would have to clear all of these changes with the federal government and prove they are not discriminatory — practically herculean task given the facts. The new law would’ve been blocked or tempered as a result. Instead, the North Carolina legislature interpreted the Court’s decision as a green light for voter suppression, which it was, and made the bill as draconian as possible.
Move aside Florida, North Carolina is now the new poster child for voter suppression. The Moral Monday movement in the state is now more important than ever. Maybe someday we’ll look back at this period as the turning point when the nation realized just how important the Voting Rights Act was and is.
|Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute. His first book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, was published in October 2010 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. He is now working on a history of voting rights since 1965.|