Attorney General Eric Holder, announcing a Justice Department lawsuit seeking to overturn key parts of North Carolina’s new election law, accused state lawmakers of waging an aggressive, targeted effort to undermine the voting rights of African-Americans and other minorities when they enacted the law last summer.
“The state legislature took extremely aggressive steps to curtail the voting rights of African-Americans,” Mr. Holder said at a press conference. “This is an intentional attempt to break a system that was working.”
Justice Department lawyers are also asking a federal judge to order that North Carolina be subject to special pre-clearance procedures for all future election law changes.
The challenged provisions in North Carolina include a new requirement (starting in 2016) that voters present photo ID prior to voting, the elimination of same-day registration during early voting, and a reduction in the early voting period from 17 days to 10 days.
The Justice Department is also objecting to a measure that bars the counting of any provisional ballot submitted in a precinct other than the voter’s assigned, home precinct.
“The Justice Department expects to show that the clear and intended effects of these changes would contract the electorate and result in unequal access to participation in the political process on account of race,” Holder said.
“By restricting access and ease of voter participation, this new law would shrink, rather than expand, access to the franchise,” Holder told reporters. “And it is especially troubling that the law would significantly narrow the early voting window that enabled hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians, including a disproportionally large number of minority voters, to cast ballots during the last election cycle.”
Holder noted that African-American voter turnout increased substantially in the 2008 and 2012 general elections, and that more than 70 percent of African-Americans who voted in those elections did so during the early voting period.
Voting procedures weren’t the only drivers of high turnout in the black community. The 2008 campaign featured the first African-American to win the presidency. And the 2012 campaign featured the first African-American president seeking reelection to a second term.
North Carolina officials have said their election law changes are necessary to prevent voter fraud and shore up security of the ballot box.
Opponents view the changes as adding unnecessary complications and barriers to the right to vote. Some denounce them as an attempt to disenfranchise minority voters.
Holder belittled claims of voter fraud. He said talk of fraud was “something that is made up in order to justify these restrictive and I think, at a minimum, partisan, actions.”
In general, Republicans have favored measures like voter ID laws, and Democrats have denounced them as voter suppression tactics.
The new law – House Bill 589 – was passed by the North Carolina legislature shortly after the US Supreme Court invalidated a key portion of the Voting Rights Act in late June.
The portion of the law that was invalidated had required a number of states and local jurisdictions to submit all proposed election law changes to Washington for pre-approval before the new laws could take effect. After the Supreme Court action, such preclearance was no longer required.
Prior to the Supreme Court ruling, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) had required preclearance of all election changes in 40 of North Carolina’s 100 counties.
Under that old preclearance regime, the Justice Department could prevail and block an election law change if its lawyers were able to show that the change would have a disproportionate effect on minority voters.
Now that that section of the VRA is no longer operative, to prevail in court the Justice Department must prove that the new election law in North Carolina is part of an intentional effort to discriminate against voters based on race, ethnicity, or membership in a language minority.
That is a substantially higher hurdle than having to show that a given measure will disproportionately affect minority voters.
“HB 589 was enacted with the purpose of denying or abridging the right of African-Americans to vote on account of their race or color,” the lawsuit says in part.
The suit adds: “Prior to voting to enact HB 589, members of the North Carolina legislature knew of the disproportionate effect certain changes would have on the ability of African-American voters to participate equally in the franchise.”
Holder was asked about the strength of the Justice Department’s evidence that lawmakers engaged in intentional racial discrimination.
“We believe that there is ample evidence of intent,” he said. The attorney general cited a history of discrimination in North Carolina, a history of racially polarized voting, and the fact that the legislature was aware of the potential impact of the new measures but passed them anyway.
Holder also used the press conference to put other states on notice that if they adopt voting measures like North Carolina’s they would face similar litigation.
He noted that the department had already filed two discrimination lawsuits in Texas challenging redistricting maps and a new voter ID law.
“I call upon state leaders across the country to pause before they enact measures that are similar to those issued in this case,” he said. “I ask them to think about their solemn duty as lawmakers.”
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in the Middle District of North Carolina. It is titled US v. State of North Carolina (13cv861).