Justice Department Sues North Carolina Over Voter ID Law

Sep 30, 2013
Originally published on September 30, 2013 5:16 pm

(This post was updated at 5 p.m.)

The Justice Department is suing North Carolina over that state's restrictive new voting law. The lawsuit takes aim at provisions that limit early voting periods and require a government photo ID as an illegal form of discrimination against minorities at the ballot box.

Federal authorities are challenging four parts of the state law, passed soon after the Supreme Court invalidated a key part of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act in June. Those provisions include: the state's decision to cut back on early voting by a week; the elimination of same-day registration during that early voting period; the prohibition on counting certain provisional ballots that are not prepared in a voter's specific precinct; and the adoption of a strict photo identification requirement without protections for voters who lack that required ID.

Update at 5 p.m. ET: N.C. Governor Criticizes Lawsuit

After the Justice Department filed its lawsuit, Gov. Pat McCrory called Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to challenge North Carolina's voter ID law a federal overreach that has no merit.

"I believe if showing a voter ID is good enough and fair enough for our own president in Illinois, then it's good enough for the people in North Carolina," McCrory said.

Our original post continues:

Attorney General Eric Holder announced the case at a Monday news conference in Washington.

"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 the participation in the political process on account of race," he said.

It marks the third time this year that the Justice Department has taken action to enforce portions of the Voting Rights Act since the high court voted 5-4 to gut the law's centerpiece, a system that required states with a history of discrimination to seek pre-approval from the federal government before making any election changes.

Forty counties in North Carolina had been covered under that old system, and the new Justice Department case will ask a court to reimpose an unspecified period of U.S. oversight under Section 3 of the VRA, a process known as "bail in."

The new U.S. case adds to a growing docket of challenges from groups including the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, which are suing North Carolina under existing parts of the Voting Rights Act. Like the Justice Department lawsuit, those cases argue that the state is imposing discriminatory burdens on poor, elderly and minority voters, and abridging their right to vote.

A study by North Carolina's Department of Motor Vehicles suggests that the voter ID requirement disproportionately affects black Americans who are already registered to vote. Other data in the state suggests that more than 300,000 registered voters lack a driver's license or another form of special ID.

At a speech to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in early September, Holder noted that he and President Obama had met with civil rights activists to bemoan the Supreme Court ruling and to find a way forward.

"We will not allow the court's action to be interpreted as 'open season' for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights," Holder said. "We will not hesitate to take appropriately aggressive action against any jurisdiction that attempts to hinder access to the franchise."

North Carolina's law, enacted and signed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory only weeks after the Supreme Court ruling, drew nationwide attention from civil rights advocates. But McCrory has said the law merely represents "common sense reform" and helps ensure integrity in the voting system. McCrory points out that the law will not take effect until 2016, giving people a lot of time to get state-approved ID.

Voting rights experts already have raised doubts about a Justice Department challenge to the Texas voter ID law filed earlier this summer and those same questions will emerge all over again in the new North Carolina dispute. Now that the decades-old federal pre-approval system is in chaos, the burden rests with the U.S. government and minority voters to demonstrate that the new laws were enacted with a "discriminatory intent" in order to force North Carolina back under federal oversight. That hurdle is much higher in the law than merely showing that the law has a "discriminatory effect" on minorities' voting strength.

Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, which sued North Carolina last month, tells NPR it's the "piling on" of regressive voting changes that makes the law so onerous for minorities.

"Each of these changes on their own would already be considerably harmful to the voting rights of North Carolinians," Hair says. "Taken together, this is the worst voter suppression law in the country. ... It is no mere coincidence that it makes voting disproportionately harder for voters of color, young people, seniors and low-income people."

And past cases suggest that when it comes to voter ID laws, the federal government has a difficult road. A U.S. appeals court upheld the Georgia law in 2009. And a year earlier, a divided Supreme Court led by then-Justice John Paul Stevens said the Indiana voter ID law passed muster so long as a state could offer a nondiscriminatory rationale.

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The federal Justice Department is preparing to sue North Carolina today over that state's restrictive new voting law. The law cuts back on early voting, scraps a program used to register young people and requires voters to use special government IDs that thousands of minorities and elderly people lack. The lawsuit by the Obama administration is part of a broader voter protection campaign that kicked into high gear after the Supreme Court invalidated a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in June. NPR's Justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is in our studios to talk about the case. Hi, Carrie.


INSKEEP: OK. So, what is it the administration objects to here?

JOHNSON: So, North Carolina was the first state to pass a restrictive new voting law after the Supreme Court ruling this summer. And a person briefed on the Justice Department plan says their new legal challenge will focus on four things: first, North Carolina cutting back the period for early voting by a week. Second, eliminating same-day registration for those early voters. Third, a part of the North Carolina law that prohibits counting some provisional ballots that are filed in a voter's home county, but not in their correct precinct.

And finally, Steve, what we've been talking about for weeks now: the requirement that voters in North Carolina have a special government-approved ID. The DOJ case is going to say all these things disproportionately hurt minorities, and they also hurt poor and elderly voters who maybe don't have transportation or driver's licenses. In fact, state DMV data from North Carolina suggests that more than their share of African-American registered voters lack the required ID, and that something like 300,000 North Carolina voters don't have it all together.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, with that said, I can see North Carolina officials saying, look, we can decide when early voting is. And, of course, there is the Voting Rights Act, but the Supreme Court struck down a lot of it. So what would be the legal basis for the Justice Department to get involved here?

JOHNSON: The Supreme Court threw out the centerpiece of that law, the formula for covering states with a history of discrimination. And sometimes like 40 counties in North Carolina were covered under the old system. But the high court left in place another part of that landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act that allows the Justice Department or minority voters to sue if there's a record of intentional discrimination. That's the problem, Steve. It's a very, very high bar.

INSKEEP: To prove that something was intentional.

JOHNSON: Yes. And you could, relatively easily, in some cases, show that a law has a discriminatory impact on minorities. But you have to prove that lawmakers enacted this law with a discriminatory purpose. And the record, track record in those kinds of voter ID cases is not good for challengers like the Justice Department or minority voters.

INSKEEP: I'm assuming that when you have talked with North Carolina officials, they have not said, yeah, this was intentional discrimination.

JOHNSON: Well, the Republican governor, Pat McCrory, says this represents a common sense measure and that nearly three dozen other states already have voter ID laws on the books. He says the state's already fighting related challenges by the NAACP and the ACLU. And he's confident that they're going to prevail in this case. In any event, Steve, all this stuff is going to take years to work through the court system. You know how litigation drags on and on. And the governor says these changes won't take effect until the 2016 election.

INSKEEP: OK. Carrie, thanks very much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.