Familiar lines drawn as Justice sues N.C. over voting law

October 1, 2013

You really could see this one coming. When Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday announced that the Justice Department would sue North Carolina over a controversial new voting law Holder says discriminates on the basis of race, no one was surprised. Those on both sides were ready – some cheering and others defensive — as North Carolina continues to be a puzzle for those who tagged it as that moderate Southern state that voted for Barack Obama in 2008. It’s now making headlines for conservative legislation and the resulting vehement pushback from groups inside – and now outside – its borders.

The voting law that starts with photo-ID requirements but doesn’t end there has been a major flashpoint. A Charlotte town hall with Democratic and Republican state House and Senate members drew hundreds of voters this summer, with the voting law on the top of the list for questions and criticism.

Holder said in his announcement that the law, passed by Republican super-majorities in the state legislature this year would “break a system that was working,” alluding to turnout that ranked North Carolina No. 11 in voter participation. He said, “It is about our democracy, and who we are as a nation.” It follows a similar Justice Department challenge to new voting laws in Texas.

Weeks after the Supreme Court invalidated a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Acts this year – one that covered 40 North Carolina counties — the GOP sponsored bill grew to include provisions beyond photo ID. The Justice Department would challenge four provisions of the law, including voter-ID requirements, the elimination of the first week of early voting, the elimination of same-day voter registration during early voting and the prohibition on counting provisional ballots mistakenly cast by voters in their home county but outside their home voting precinct.

Election statistics show that African Americans are 23 percent of registered voters in the state but made up 29 percent of early voters in 2012, 30 percent of those who cast out-of-precinct ballots, 34 percent of the 318,000 registered voters without state-issued IDs, and 41 percent of those who used same-day registration, according to reports in the News & Observer.

The Justice Department must prove that provisions of the law – also challenged in court by the state NAACP and other civil-rights groups – are “both discriminatory in intent and in impact.”

Supporters of the law disagree with that judgment, insisting the regulations combat fraud and bring North Carolina in line with other states. Gov. Pat McCrory (R), who signed the bill, said Holder’s suit was “overreach” and “without merit” and motivated by the administration’s partisan politics. Polls show neither McCrory nor President Obama are particularly popular in the state.

Though the office of the North Carolina attorney general, Roy Cooper, will have the primary duty of representing the state and defending the law, outside legal help has been hired to fight the federal lawsuit. Cooper, a Democrat, had urged McCrory not to sign the bill. When he changed the name of his political committee from Cooper for Attorney General to Cooper for North Carolina, many in the state took it as a sign he is considering a 2016 challenge to McCrory.

Holder’s action was welcomed by the bill’s opponents, who considered it a partisan attempt by the GOP-led legislature to suppress the votes of minorities, young people, the elderly and the poor. Cases of in-person voter fraud are virtually nonexistent.

The Rev. William Barber, head of the state NAACP, who led Moral Monday marches that grew throughout the Raleigh legislative session that enacted a wave of conservative laws, said in a statement: “We need every resource, including the U.S. government, to help us expose the national conspiracy behind this movement to suppress targeted constituencies in the new southern electorate.” Demonstrations have continued throughout the state after the general assembly adjourned.

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who had written a letter to Holder urging his department to review the law, applauded his decision on Monday. “Restricting access to this basic right is simply not in sync with our North Carolina values, and it goes against our state’s proud tradition of eliminating barriers to participation in the democratic process,” Hagan said in a statement.

In 2014, Hagan faces reelection in a battle sure to draw national attention and money as Republicans look to regain a majority in the U.S. Senate. Whether the fight over restrictions will energize Democratic voters beyond their usual non-presidential year turnout could be crucial to her chances. That election battle will certainly be an indication of where the state is heading politically.

A recent Public Policy Polling survey showed a change in how the rest of the country perceives North Carolina after headlines about its ideological shift. That’s also no surprise. It’s an image recalibration the Justice Department lawsuit should only reinforce.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
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