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The Voting Rights Act Turns 55 Today. It's Still Fiercely Contested In North Carolina.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act.

North Carolina has been a key battleground in the fight over voting rights.

Fifty-five years ago Thursday, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. But a key part of that law was removed in 2013, in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder. That 5-4 decision removed section 4(b), which contained a formula to determine which states or counties needed federal approval before making changes to voting.

Forty North Carolina counties were covered under that formula. Its removal touched off a series of battles over voting in North Carolina that’s still unresolved today. 

“I could teach an entire election law class just with cases from North Carolina,” said Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California-Irvine who specializes in election law. 

William Barber is the former president of the North Carolina NAACP. He said that 2013 Supreme Court decision opened the floodgates for what he described as legislation to suppress minority voters.

“The historians say we have the worst voter suppression case after Shelby, bar none,” Barber said. “North Carolina set the bar for regression. And we set the bar for fight back and push back.”

Barber led a protest movement inside the state’s General Assembly building in Raleigh called Moral Mondays that began in 2013. 

“We chose not to stand down,” Barber said. “There were people who told us to accept photo ID, and we said no. And it was a four-year battle, but we won.”

Photo ID was – and still is - one of the biggest battles in North Carolina. That was part of a post-Shelby law that, among other things, reduced the number of days of early voting and prohibited people from registering and voting on the same day.

In 2016, a federal court ruled that the photo ID wasn’t meant to combat fraud – but to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” And the court found that lawmakers – “with race in hand” – changed the bill to exclude the types of IDs used by African Americans.

[RELATED: Join former Attorney General Eric Holder in a special livestreamed event Thursday, Aug. 6, marking the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.]

Pat McCrory was the Republican governor when the photo ID law was passed. He said there was no intent to hurt minority voters.

“We use an ID to get Sudafed in North Carolina; it’s required,” McCrory said. “That’s not called discriminatory. We use an ID to cash government checks. I don’t agree with the discrimination argument against voter ID at all.”

The state board of elections did an audit after the 2016 election. It found that out of nearly 4.8 million votes cast, one would have likely been stopped with a photo ID law.

The Republican legislature – which had veto-proof supermajorities until 2018 – tried again. It voted to place a constitutional amendment requiring photo ID on the 2018 ballot. It passed with 55% of the vote.

The state NAACP sued, in both state and federal court.

Kym Hunter, an attorney representing the NAACP in the state case, said the legislature wouldn’t have had enough votes to place the photo ID amendment on the ballot if the legislative maps weren’t gerrymandered.

“Under our constitution, there wasn’t representation of three-fifths of the populace to place the constitutional amendment on the ballot,” Hunter said.

Currently, there are two injunctions blocking the state’s photo ID law. While photo ID remains unresolved, there has been some clarity over racial and political gerrymandering.

North Carolina Republicans have said the Democrats drew gerrymandered maps for decades when they were in power, and after they seized power in 2010, they did the same.

Barber said the most egregious gerrymander was in the state’s old congressional map, which divided North Carolina A&T in Greensboro into two congressional districts.

“That was just straight out racism and racist gerrymandering to split a historically black college campus,” Barber said. “But we also know they did that across the state.”

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 ruled that a political gerrymander was not unconstitutional – temporarily allowing North Carolina’s congressional map to stand. It left the issue of political gerrymandering to the states.

But state lawsuits forced the GOP to redraw not only the congressional map, but also the state House and Senate maps. The new congressional map is expected to give the Democrats five seats after the 2020 elections, up from three under the old map. 

There are now two new seats that favor Democrats, near Greensboro and Raleigh.

But the future is uncertain.

If they win a legislative majority, Democrats say they want an independent redistricting commission to draw maps.  California uses a similar system.

McCrory said that he supports that idea and that both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of gerrymandering.

But State Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican, said an independent commission is a ruse. He said that any commission or task force with members appointed by a political body will still be political.

“I have no faith in any commission appointed by members of a partisan board that would suddenly become nonpartisan once it’s handed power,” he said. “That’s not true of any commission we have. It’s clear that it’s a way to hide the changes you are making to the redistricting process to claim it’s somehow independent.”

For the 2020 election, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted the state to make voting by mail easier.

The Board of Elections – which has a Democratic majority under Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper – now requires only one witness to sign an absentee ballot, instead of two. The board has also required that counties have at least one early voting place for every 20,000 residents.

That’s led to some urban counties such as Mecklenburg having more early voting sites. The state GOP has said that rule is unfair, giving urban residents more opportunities to vote compared with rural residents.

The fight for voting rights in North Carolina is far from over. After 2020, Barber said he wants a final decision on photo ID. He also said he wants Congress to restore and strengthen the Voting Rights Act to bring back federal oversight. 

This story was written as part of a collaboration with The Guardian's Fight To Vote project for Voting Rights Day.

Copyright 2020 WFAE