RALEIGH, N.C. — The emails to the North Carolina election board seemed routine at the time.
“Is there any way to get a breakdown of the 2008 voter turnout, by race (white and black) and type of vote (early and Election Day)?” a staffer for the state’s Republican-controlled legislature asked in January 2012.
“Is there no category for ‘Hispanic’ voter?” a GOP lawmaker asked in March 2013 after requesting a range of data, including how many voters cast ballots outside their precinct.
And in April 2013, a top aide to the Republican House speaker asked for “a breakdown, by race, of those registered voters in your database that do not have a driver’s license number.”
Months later, the North Carolina legislature passed a law that cut a week of early voting, eliminated out-of-precinct voting and required voters to show specific types of photo ID — restrictions that election board data demonstrated would disproportionately affect African Americans and other minorities.
Critics dubbed it the “monster” law — a sprawling measure that stitched together various voting restrictions being tested in other states. As civil rights groups have sued to block the North Carolina law and others like it around the country, several thousand pages of documents have been produced under court order, revealing the details of how Republicans crafted these measures.
A review of these documents shows that North Carolina GOP leaders launched a meticulous and coordinated effort to deter black voters, who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. The law, created and passed entirely by white legislators, evoked the state’s ugly history of blocking African Americans from voting — practices that had taken a civil rights movement and extensive federal intervention to stop.
Last month, a three-judge federal appeals panel struck down the North Carolina law, calling it “the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow.” Drawing from the emails and other evidence, the 83-page ruling charged that Republican lawmakers had targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Gov. Pat McCrory (R) filed an emergency petition to restore the law, but a deadlocked Supreme Court on Wednesday refused his stay request, meaning the law will not be in effect for the Nov. 8 election. Because the lower court did not offer specific guidelines for reinstating early voting, however, local election boards run by Republicans are still trying to curb access to the polls.
In lengthy interviews, GOP leaders insisted their law is not racially motivated and their goal was to combat voter fraud. They called their opponents demagogues, who are using the specter of racism to inflame the issue.
The Rev. William Barber II, president of North Carolina’s NAACP chapter, said the policies enacted by the law speak for themselves.
“You didn’t hear about fraud in North Carolina until blacks started voting in large numbers,” said Barber, who has also led a series of large protests against the law. “Then all of a sudden, there’s a problem with how people are voting.”
“People keep asking, ‘When they passed this law, were they racist in their heart?’ It doesn’t matter,” he added. “You look at the heart of their policies. If I tell you this law is going to affect black people more than anyone else, and you still go ahead and do it, you yourself are making clear exactly what you are.”
Longtime Republican consultant Carter Wrenn, a fixture in North Carolina politics, said the GOP’s voter fraud argument is nothing more than an excuse.
“Of course it’s political. Why else would you do it?” he said, explaining that Republicans, like any political party, want to protect their majority. While GOP lawmakers might have passed the law to suppress some voters, Wrenn said, that does not mean it was racist.
“Look, if African Americans voted overwhelmingly Republican, they would have kept early voting right where it was,” Wrenn said. “It wasn’t about discriminating against African Americans. They just ended up in the middle of it because they vote Democrat.”
Barber, though, argued that Republicans are playing with words.
“You can’t expect racists to come right out and sound like racists,” he said. “They’ve substituted the word ‘racial’ with the word ‘political.’ ”
Fights over race and voting rights are nothing new in North Carolina. Its history — like those of many Southern states — is littered with laws and policies specifically designed to deter black voters: literacy tests, poll taxes and required recitations of the preamble of the Constitution.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned many of these practices. But as recently as the mid-1990s, voter turnout among African Americans here remained low, with only 37 percent voting compared with 48 percent of whites.
In the late 1990s, when Democrats controlled the legislature, the state tried to make voting easier for all residents. The new rules allowed voting before Election Day, same-day voter registration and the counting of votes cast in the wrong precinct.
The laws ended up helping black voters more because they often face more financial and logistical barriers, said Rep. Henry “Mickey” Michaux, 85, one of the state’s first black legislators, who helped pass many of the new voting rules. “Some folks don’t own a car. Some have the type of job where you can’t take a day off.”
With the new laws, voter turnout in North Carolina went from 43rd place in the nation to 11th. The increase was especially big among black voters.
Then, in 2010, North Carolina experienced a seismic political shift: Republicans took control of the House and Senate for the first time since 1898. For years, GOP legislators said, they had watched Republicans in other states such as Georgia and Indiana pass voter ID laws. Now they had the power to do the same in Raleigh.
House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate Leader Phil Berger tapped Rep. David Lewis, a tobacco and cotton farmer from the rural center of the state, to oversee the effort to pass a voter ID bill. In 2011, legislators passed a law requiring all voters to produce a photo ID, such as a driver’s license. But the state’s governor, then still a Democrat, vetoed the bill.
In an interview, Lewis said he was driven by a deep concern about voter fraud, particularly people showing up at polls and deliberately impersonating another person. But there is little evidence that such fraud is a problem. A 2013 report by North Carolina’s Board of Elections showed that between 2000 and 2012, out of nearly 40 million votes cast, only two cases of in-person voter fraud were referred to a district attorney.
Lewis and other Republicans insist fraud could be happening all the same.
“Just because it’s not documented doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” he said.
So in 2012, when McCrory won the governor’s office, Lewis and others tried again.
Within months of McCrory’s victory, emails show, the state election board began receiving requests for demographic data from a top aide to Tillis named Ray Starling and a group of GOP lawmakers, including Lewis and state Reps. Tim Moore and Harry Warren.
They asked for statistics on voter behavior broken down by race: Who voted early, and who voted on Election Day? Who voted out of precinct?
They asked about what kinds of people were registered to vote but did not have a driver’s license. They asked about student ID cards — which some states allow as a form of voter ID — and how many African Americans had them.
Moore did not respond to requests for comment. Lewis, Warren and Tillis said they requested the data to make sure their bill would not violate federal laws against discrimination.
Over several email exchanges, state researchers told GOP legislators that between 318,643 and 612,955 registered voters appeared to lack IDs issued by the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles. And the data attached showed that the percentage of black people at risk of losing their vote under the new law was much higher than that of whites.
In another email exchange, officials at the University of North Carolina received a data request that came from Lewis.
“I was asked by a State Representative about the number of Student ID cards that are created and the % of those who are African American,” a university official says to his lower staff. No explanation is given for why Lewis needs the data, just a plea to hurry on it. “He needs it in 2 hours or less.”
But for all the keen interest Republicans expressed in emails about voting methods heavily used by minority voters, the law they drafted in April 2013 at first did not touch any of it. Instead, it focused initially only on voter IDs.
Once that early version of HB 589 passed the House, it sat for two months in North Carolina’s Senate. When reporters asked about the delay, Tom Apodaca, the Republican chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, pointed to one reason: the U.S. Supreme Court.
Under a decades-old provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — called Section 5 — Southern states like North Carolina with a history of voter discrimination could not change election laws without the approval of federal officials.
But in the spring of 2013, as North Carolina Republicans were working on their bill, a court case — called Shelby v. Holder — was being argued before the Supreme Court that threatened the very existence of Section 5.
On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court issued its ruling on the case, nullifying Section 5. Explaining the court’s 5-to-4 decision, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that “history did not end in 1965” when the Voting Rights Act was passed. In the decades since then, he said, “voting tests were abolished, disparities in voter registration and turnout due to race were erased, and African-Americans attained political office in record numbers.”
In North Carolina, within hours of the court ruling, Apodaca told local reporters, “Now we can go with the full bill.” With the “legal headache” of Section 5 out of the way, he said, a more extensive “omnibus” bill would soon be introduced in the Senate.
Weeks later, at 9 p.m. on a Monday, five days before the end of the legislative session, Republican lawmakers emailed out their new version of HB 589.
Democratic state Sen. Josh Stein remembers getting the email while sitting at his kitchen table that night, already dressed for bed. “My jaw just hit the table.”
The bill had grown from 16 pages to 57, tacking on more than 50 new parts. The new bill shortened early voting by half, cutting one of the Sundays when black churches held their “Souls to Polls” drives. It eliminated same-day registration and out-of-
It also proposed changes that, to Stein and other opponents, made no sense unless you were purposely trying to discourage voting. For example, it canceled an existing rule that let 16- and 17-year-old high schoolers pre-register to vote in civics classes or when they got driver’s licenses. And it took away counties’ ability to extend poll hours on Election Day during extraordinary circumstances such as long lines.
On the next day, a hearing on the bill was packed. Republicans in charge began by giving the crowd one white piece of paper with 10 lines on it. Only 10 people would be given the chance to talk, they explained, with just two minutes each. That total of 20 minutes, it later turned out, would be the only public testimony Republicans allowed on the revised bill.
During the hearing, Stein read into the legislative record studies and statistics to show the bill would disproportionately hurt African American, minority and younger voters. The idea, he said, was to show that Republicans knew exactly what they were doing and lay the groundwork for the legal battle ahead.
On the Senate side, Republican Sen. Bob Rucho was tasked with defending the bill. “I don’t agree with your premise,” he told Stein and other critics, “and secondly, I don’t look at race as who’s going to vote. What we’re trying to do is make sure that we have an equal opportunity for every single person to vote, and it’s not designed on race in any manner.”
In the space of three days, Republicans managed to get HB 589 approved by the Senate Rules Committee, passed in a Senate floor vote and sent back to the House for a final vote on the second-to-last day of the legislative session.
A federal court judge would later write, “Neither this legislature — nor, as far as we can tell, any other legislature in the country — has ever done so much, so fast, to restrict [voting] access.”
On July 25, 2013, the bill passed the House, 73 to 41. Everyone who voted for the law was a white Republican, and every black member of the legislature voted against it. As the final vote was cast, Democratic representatives all stood up, held hands and bowed their heads in prayer.
Rick Glazier, a white Democratic representative at the time, was on the House floor with Michaux, the black legislator who helped pass many of the voting-access laws being dismantled by HB 589. “I’ll never forget the look on his face. To see the thing you had fought for your whole career destroyed in a matter of days,” Glazier said. “He had tears in his eyes.”
Lewis said he deeply resented critics who have painted the bill and its supporters as racist. “When Democrats were in power, I may not have agreed with them, but I never questioned them personally or tried to impugn their reputations,” he said.
On the day McCrory signed HB 589 into law, the state’s NAACP chapter sued over the voter ID portion of the bill, while the League of Women Voters and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice challenged its other parts, such as cutting early voting, same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting. National lawyers from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Advancement Project stepped in to help. The Justice Department later joined as well.
In January, the federal district judge overseeing the consolidated cases sided with the Republicans and kept HB 589 in place. The judge, Thomas D. Schroeder — a George W. Bush appointee — said that Republicans offered plausible explanations for why they requested racial voting data and enacted the law.
But on July 29, the three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit — all Democratic appointees — overturned Schroeder’s decision.
North Carolina’s Republican leaders have condemned the 4th Circuit ruling and called its judges partisan.
The stakes are high for both sides. With just weeks before early voting begins, McCrory is locked in a tight race for reelection against Roy Cooper, the state attorney general. As a swing state, North Carolina could also be pivotal in the presidential election.
The Republican state Senate and House leaders said in a statement: “We can only wonder if the intent is to reopen the door for voter fraud, potentially allowing fellow Democrat politicians like Hillary Clinton and Roy Cooper to steal the election.”
Meanwhile, the years-long fight has metastasized into a county-by-county war throughout North Carolina.
When the appellate court restored that week of early voting previously eliminated by HB 589, the judges did not specify what times or places the early voting would take place. Now, Republicans in many counties appear to be using that opening to carry out the intended cuts of HB 589 anyway.
In recent weeks, after the 4th Circuit’s ruling, the election board in Guilford County tried to cancel Sunday voting and slash the number of polling sites, especially in black and student-heavy neighborhoods. After hundreds disrupted a meeting with chants and protest songs, the board passed a scaled-back compromise plan.
Soon after, the election board in Wake County — which includes the state capital, Raleigh — tried a similar move by restricting the restored early voting days to a single location with limited parking.
And in heavily African American Lenoir County, Republican election board members are trying to eliminate Sunday voting and evening hours and slash polling sites from four to one.
When the Republican governor asked the Supreme Court to temporarily reinstate the restrictions of HB 589, he argued that the 4th Circuit struck down the law too close to Election Day, which threatened to create confusion.
He was worried, he said, about the harmful effect it could have on voters.
Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.