How Voting Rights Are Being Rigged

Voters waiting in line to cast early ballots, Cleveland, Ohio, November 2012
Mark Duncan/AP Images
Voters waiting in line to cast early ballots, Cleveland, Ohio, November 2012


In 2012 North Carolina elected a Republican governor and a Republican-controlled legislature for the first time in more than a century. The Republicans quickly went to work to ensure that they would not soon lose their newly won grip on state power. One way to do so would be to suppress the votes of African-Americans. In North Carolina, as elsewhere, African-Americans overwhelmingly vote for Democratic candidates. In fact, as an expert testifying for North Carolina conceded in a case challenging the new voting rules the state eventually adopted, “in North Carolina, African-American race is a better predictor for voting Democratic than party registration.”1

But the Republicans faced one significant obstacle. Because of their history of racially discriminatory voting practices, forty North Carolina counties were required, by Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act, to submit any changes in the state’s voting laws to the US Justice Department for approval, or “preclearance.” Section 5, which applied to regions that had a history of voting discrimination, barred changes that would have a disparate impact on African-American voters. By far the most effective provision of the Voting Rights Act, Section 5 had, since its enactment in 1965, resulted in the blocking of over three thousand such voting rule changes nationwide. In North Carolina alone, federal courts and the Justice Department blocked more than one hundred election law changes from 1980 to 2013 because they discriminated on the basis of race.

In 2013 the North Carolina legislature nonetheless began considering a bill to require citizens to show photo identification when voting, a requirement that has a demonstrably disproportionate impact on African-Americans, who are less likely to have such identification. No doubt because of the need to satisfy preclearance review, the initial version of the bill was relatively modest, and even achieved the support of five state House Democrats. It was still under consideration when, on June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court decided Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down the Voting Rights Act’s “preclearance” process. Writing for the Court’s 5–4 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “Things have changed in the South.”

The day after, the chairman of the North Carolina Senate Rules Committee announced that the legislature “would now move ahead” on its voter ID bill. One month later the legislature passed a greatly expanded law that added a host of new voting restrictions. The new law curtailed early voting and eliminated same-day voting registration, provisional voting for those who mistakenly voted in the wrong precinct, and preregistration of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds when they obtained their driver’s licenses. Two features united all of the measures the new law now limited or ended: they had been originally designed to increase voter participation,…

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