Over the past few years, state lawmakers have gotten increasingly bold in their efforts to make it harder to vote. From new restrictions on the type of ID that voters can use to requiring documentary proof of citizenship to register, these initiatives have fixated on aspects of voting that are most harmful to people of color. Legislators have convinced themselves that the best way to maintain political power is to manipulate the rules.
The June 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder made it even easier to pass these kinds of policies by dealing a blow to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. For decades, Section 5 required jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination to obtain federal approval before making any changes to voting procedures. Though Section 5 was highly effective at stopping racial discrimination before it could take hold, the Shelby decision rendered historical protections for voters of color powerless. Like an animal lying in wait for an unsuspecting prey, some politicians pounced. Perhaps they thought it was open season on voters?
They were wrong.
Attorney General Eric Holder made that perfectly clear this week, when he announced plans for the U.S. Department of Justice to file a lawsuit against North Carolina over a new voting law that the state swiftly passed after the Shelby ruling. The measure's "kitchen sink" approach to restricting the vote includes a strict voter ID requirement; cutting early voting by a full week; eliminating same-day registration; allowing voters to be challenged by any registered voter in the same county, rather than precinct; rejecting provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct; banning 16- and 17-year-olds from pre-registering to vote; and preventing counties from extending poll hours to accommodate long lines. All told, it holds the distinction of being the most extreme voting measure in the nation.
With Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act no longer in play, the federal government is challenging the law under Sections 2 and 3. These provisions, respectively, ban voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity, and allow for a state to be brought back under federal pre-clearance if the Department of Justice can show that the state intentionally discriminated against voters of color. The Department has a very strong case in North Carolina. I would know: Back in August, Advancement Project, on behalf of the North Carolina NAACP, filed a similar Section 2 lawsuit against the state. And we weren't alone. The Southern Coalition for Social Justice and ACLU also filed a lawsuit over the North Carolina law.
These lawsuits will show that North Carolina's law is an outright attempt to suppress the votes of African Americans. In 2008 and 2012, the state saw a dramatic increase of African-American voter participation, which officials are now seeking to scale back. In 2012, for example, 70 percent of African Americans who voted used early voting. Thirty-one percent of registered North Carolina voters who don't have photo ID are African-American, despite comprising just 22 percent of the state's voting population. In 2012, African Americans cast 45 percent of ballots by voters who used same-day registration to update their registration at the polls. There is no doubt that this law was intentionally designed to focus, with laser-like specification, on voting policies that will disproportionately impact people of color.
We are pleased that the U.S. Department of Justice has chosen to bring its resources, stature and force to the struggle for voting rights in North Carolina and, indeed, across the nation. During his announcement of the lawsuit last week, the Attorney General put the entire country on notice:
To other states considering voting restrictions like North Carolina's, I want to say this: I and my colleagues at every level of the Justice Department will never hesitate to do all that we must to protect the constitutionally guaranteed civil rights of all Americans. I call upon state leaders across the country to pause before they enact measures similar to those at issue in this case.
Underscoring that point, the Department of Justice also recently called on Sections 2 and 3 of the Voting Rights Act to sue Texas over its restrictive voter ID law, and its redistricting plan. Likewise, Advancement Project is currently litigating voter ID laws in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to ensure that elections are free, fair and accessible for all.
As states continue to do all that they can to curtail voting rights in every region of our country, we cannot and will not stand by. We applaud the Justice Department's mounting role in this battle, as it's a fight that will take every resource of the civil rights community, from grassroots organizing and community-based coalition building, to the force of the federal government. And as we keep working to expose, prevent and dismantle voter suppression across the country, we are collectively letting politicians know that the Supreme Court's Shelby ruling does not mean that it's open season on voters.
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