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All Eyes on North Carolina: A Guide to This Week’s Voting Law Hearing

Will a federal court decide to block one of the most wide-reaching and restrictive voting measures in the country before the November elections?

  • Jennifer L. Clark
July 10, 2014

Crossposted at ACSblog.

Throughout 2014, we’ve seen courts step in to block laws restricting access to the ballot box. Courts struck down photo ID laws in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arkansas, and pushed back against efforts to cut back on early voting in Ohio. This week, all eyes are on North Carolina, where a federal court will decide whether to temporarily block the state’s 2013 omnibus election law — one of the most wide-reaching and restrictive voting measures in the country — before the November 2014 elections. 

Before last June’s Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted a core Voting Rights Act protection, North Carolina had to “pre-clear” all statewide election changes before putting them into effect. This meant the state had to show the laws wouldn’t discriminate against minority voters. After the Court’s ruling last summer, however, lawmakers around the country, including in North Carolina, seized the opportunity to pass a series of voting restrictions. North Carolina’s legislation slashes early voting days, eliminates same-day registration, gets rid of out-of-precinct provisional voting, imposes a strict photo ID requirement, and does away with pre-registration for 16– and 17-year-olds, among other changes. Except for the photo ID requirement, which is slated to be implemented in 2016, all of these measures will be in effect this November.

The Department of Justice and multiple civic groups quickly challenged the law in federal court. A full trial on the merits of the challengers’ claims is scheduled for July 2015, but, seeking redress in advance of November, the law’s challengers filed motions this past May to temporarily block many of the worst new restrictions. This week, the court is holding hearings to determine whether to grant these motions, and thereby prevent the law from going into effect until a full trial can be held.

Here’s our cheat-sheet explaining the main arguments being raised by the challengers in this week’s hearing.

  • North Carolina’s law violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, the portion of the VRA that was left intact after Shelby County. In part, Section 2 prohibits a state from passing any law that results in a denial of the right to vote on account of race. In North Carolina, the challengers argue the law disproportionately disenfranchises African-American voters who, because of a history of racial discrimination in North Carolina and elsewhere, are more burdened by the elimination of early voting and same-day registration than are white voters. In 2008 and 2012, for example, 70 percent of all African-American voters used early voting, compared to 52 percent or less of white voters. Furthermore, lawmakers cut the precise early voting days when turnout was highest among African Americans and lowest among white voters. As for same-day registration, in every election in which it has been offered in North Carolina, black voters were more likely to use it than white voters. The same is true for other opportunities cut by the legislation, such as pre-registration and out-of-precinct voting.
  • North Carolina’s law is unconstitutional because it was passed with the intent to discriminate against voters on the basis of race. Under the 14th and 15th Amendments, which were passed in the wake of the Civil War, a law that is designed to discriminate on the basis of race is unconstitutional. Before passing the bill, state legislators received a racial impact analysis showing the voting changes would have a disproportionately negative effect on blacks. Despite this evidence, the challengers explain, they still passed the law. The challengers also argue that North Carolina has a long history of passing discriminatory laws packaged as election reforms in the face of rising African-American turnout. In the 2000s, black turnout was finally equal to, and eventually surpassing, white turnout in the state. The challengers argue lawmakers passed this omnibus election bill in reaction to that trend, in an effort to depress African-American turnout.
  • North Carolina’s law unjustifiably burdens the right to vote, in violation of 14th Amendment.  The civic groups challenging the law also argue the measure is unconstitutional because the burden it places on North Carolinians’ right to vote greatly outweighs the interests the state purports are served by the law. To illustrate how severe the injury to voters is, the challengers catalogue the consistent high usage of early voting and same-day registration among voters in North Carolina, particularly voters of limited means. The challengers argue North Carolina has put forth no plausible justification for passing a law that so severely burdens the right to vote.
  • North Carolina’s law intentionally discriminates against young voters, in violation of the 26th Amendment. In a novel claim, some civic groups contend state legislators purposefully passed the law to burden young voters. The 26th Amendment guarantees to right to vote to citizens 18 and older, and makes it unconstitutional to abridge that right on account of age. Eliminating pre-registration of 16– and 17-year-olds, and mandatory voter registration drives at high schools, serves no administrative purpose other than to make it harder for young people to vote, the challengers argue. They also suggest that doing away with same-day registration and out-of-precinct provisional voting disproportionately hurts college students, who need to re-register to vote at college or who remain registered in their parents’ district, but do not travel there to vote.

Now that you know the arguments, keep watching North Carolina to see if yet another court steps in to help keep elections in this country free, fair, and accessible to all eligible voters. Also check out all of the Brennan Center’s resources on the State of Voting in 2014, and sign up for our voting newsletter to stay abreast of all election news.

(Photo: Flickr)