North Carolina went from being the model of a voter-friendly state to the poster child for voting restrictions, in one session of a Republican-dominated state legislature.
Now, the battle over sweeping new laws passed this year is in the courts, with challenges from the Justice Department and civil rights groups, with crucial midterm elections on the line and the country watching.
Attorney General Eric Holder, as well as groups and individuals on both sides, are weighing in. A federal judge last week said the case would not go to trial until 2015, though groups can argue for some of the provisions to be blocked until then. It means that most of new laws would be in place for a contentious 2014 election, with Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan’s pivotal U.S. Senate seat at stake.
“It’s a tough case,” said Holder of the Justice Department’s challenge after the Supreme Court this year invalided a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which required preclearance of any voting change. But in a recent conversation with members of the Trotter Group, a national organization of black columnists, he was quietly determined.
“I am not going to be the attorney general who allowed the unraveling of the progress we’ve made under the 1965 Voting Rights Act—that is not going to happen,” he said. His department is also mounting a legal challenge to voting restrictions in Texas.
“The courts might say that the suits that we brought are not winnable or that we can’t win them, but we’re going to use every tool that we have in the Justice Department to try to make sure that every person who wants to cast a ballot has the opportunity to do so in a way that’s not hindered unnecessarily by practices and procedures that are put in place to deal with nonexistent problems. This notion of voter fraud is something that is simply not consistent with the facts.” Holder said that wide-scale, in-person voter fraud “does not exist to the extent that these proponents say.”
The North Carolina rules cover much more than the requirement for a photo ID, set to go into effect in 2016. If the law stands, other provisions of the law, set to take effect Jan. 1, would shorten early voting by a week, end preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds, eliminate same-day voter registration, Sunday voting and straight-ticket voting, increase the number of poll watchers who can challenge a voter’s eligibility, prohibit the counting of provisional ballots of eligible voters who mistakenly go to the wrong precinct and more.
The Rev. William Barber, head of the state NAACP, which is suing the state with the support of the Advancement Project, a national rights group, has called it “a monster voter-suppression bill” that will disproportionately affect minorities, the elderly, young people and the poor. In North Carolina, black residents are 23 percent of registered voters but 34 percent of those without a driver's license or other government-issued ID. Barber led “Moral Monday” protests in the state capital of Raleigh during a general assembly session that passed a wave of conservative legislation. Close to a thousand were arrested at the weekly gatherings.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the diversity in those crowds—including the clergy members marched away in plastic handcuffs—was “because they get that there’s something going on that’s beyond race, that transcends it.”
In a conversation with The Root after a presentation with the Trotter Group, Ifill said her organization would increasingly make the connection between the challenges around voting and participation as it affects women and students, calling it a “strategic” move.
“Sixty-two percent of the people who lack the government-issued photo ID required by the state of North Carolina are women,” Ifill said, “so we’ve started people talking about your grandmother who doesn’t drive anymore and hasn’t driven in years and doesn’t have a license.”
Though the NAACP Legal Defense Fund is not a party bringing suit in the North Carolina case, as it is in states including Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Alabama, Ifill said the issues are similar. “North Carolina was out there with early voting, same-day registration,” she said. “This wasn’t just about race; this was for everybody, things that a vibrant democracy would have. And what we’re seeing and what we have to fight is the backlash to the progress … I’m afraid that is the way it goes.”
In our earlier conversation, Holder also looked to history. He recalled that having been born in 1951, he witnessed the passage of the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act. He said he remembered how Vivian Malone, the women who would become his sister-in-law, integrated the University of Alabama as George Wallace symbolically stood in the school house door.
“The notion that here we are 50 years later, still dealing with these kinds of issues, is something that for me is extremely troubling,” Holder said. “I have the ability now as attorney general to oppose these actions, and wherever I can, wherever the possibility exists, that’s what we intend to do.”
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to the Washington Post's "She the People" blog and WCCB News Charlotte. She has worked at the New York Times, the Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter.
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.