A supporter of the North Carolina NAACP holds stickers for those gathered in the House chamber of the North Carolina General Assembly, Wednesday, April 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Three lawsuits have been filed challenging North Carolina’s new voter suppression law, which I called the worst in the nation and Rick Hasen says is the most restrictive since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Now comes the question: Will the challenges be successful? Here are three factors that will decide the outcome in North Carolina and the future of the VRA and voting rights more broadly.
1. Can Section 2 replace Section 5 of the VRA?
Conservatives opposed to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act strenuously made the argument before and after the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder that Section 2 was an adequate replacement for Section 5, which forced states with the worst history of voting discrimination to approve their voting changes with the federal government. “Our decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting found in Section 2,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority. Testifying before the House, Hans van Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation called Section 2 “the heart of the VRA” and said “there’s no reason for Congress to take any action” to resurrect Section 5 with a new coverage map.
This is a clever and disingenuous marketing job. In truth, Section 2 has been used mostly to challenge at-large election schemes and to protect majority-minority districts during redistricting, and has been narrowed in recent years by the Supreme Court, most recently in Bartlett v. Strickland in 2009. The Department of Justice hasn’t filed a Section 2 lawsuit since 2009 and no major voting restrictions were blocked under Section 2 during the last election. It’s difficult to challenge voting changes before they go into effect under Section 2 and the cases often take years and millions of dollars to defend. “This is one of the fixes we need from Congress,” says Spencer Overton, a professor at George Washington University Law School. “We need some better, clearer standards for Section 2. The law is not well-developed.” Moreover, the more cases that are filed under Section 2, the more likely it is that anti-VRA conservatives will challenge its constitutionality.
Under Section 5, the burden would have been on North Carolina to prove that its voting changes were not discriminatory. Given the overwhelming facts of disparate racial impact in the law, DOJ or the courts would have almost certainly blocked its implementation. The strong evidence of racial discrimination in this case shows the urgent need for Congress to resurrect Section 5.
The outcome under Section 2 “will depend on a lot of discretionary factors instead of a straightforward law, which is why Congress needs to update the VRA,” says Overton. “It’s uncharted territory, so no one really knows what will happen,” says Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s voting rights project. The federal lawsuits have been assigned to Judge Thomas Schroeder of the Middle District of North Carolina, a George W. Bush appointee regarded as an establishment Republican.
2. Did North Carolina Republicans intentionally discriminate against minority voters?
Lawsuits brought by the North Carolina NAACP and the ACLU ask that North Carolina be covered under Section 3 of the VRA, so that they must seek federal approval of their voting changes for a period of time, based on a “preponderance of evidence” of intentional discrimination. DOJ recently asked a court to do this with Texas. “The General Assembly has discriminated against African Americans and other voters of color in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, and thus coverage under Section 3(c) is mandated under the Voting Rights Act,” the ACLU plaintiffs in North Carolina write.
The lawsuits argue that clear evidence of the law’s discriminatory burden on African-Americans—who were disproportionately more likely to lack ID and to use early voting and same-day voter registration, for example—was presented during the legislative debate and that Republican sponsors of the bill did nothing to alter the legislation. “After Shelby County v. Holder, the courts are going to have to take these intent claims seriously,” says Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, which filed suit on behalf of the North Carolina NAACP.
But North Carolina could argue, like Texas, that its law was simply aimed at disenfranchising Democrats, not minorities, and thus is not intentionally discriminatory. Proving intentional discrimination in court is very difficult. One change Congress could easily make is for Section 3 to cover voting changes that have a discriminatory impact, not intent. Under that standard, North Carolina would almost certainly have to clear its voting changes with the feds for a period of time.
3. Will voter suppression efforts produce an electoral backlash among minority voters?
It’s almost considered a truism today that laws meant to disenfranchise minority voters will motivate more minority voters to cast a ballot in order to defend their most sacred right, since that’s what happened in 2012. But the backlash against voter suppression in the last election was the result of a number of unique factors: an extremely well-organized and well-funded Obama campaign, a poorly run Romney campaign that did almost no outreach to minority voters and the fact that many of the new voting restrictions were blocked or repealed in key battleground states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
We shouldn’t assume that such a backlash will become the new normal, especially as more onerous laws are put on the books in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision. “The 2012 election was an anomaly, because of the candidate and campaign at the top of the ticket,” says Overton. “In primaries, off-year elections, midterms, the resources aren’t there to mobilize people to the polls.” And even if the impact of a new voting restriction is ultimately tempered or overcome, that doesn’t make attempts to restrict the right to vote any less immoral. “I hope there is a backlash,” says Hair. “I hope everyone is so angry in North Carolina about efforts to take away their right to vote that they redouble their efforts. But you shouldn’t have to redouble your efforts in order to vote.”
That said, North Carolina is one of the states where you could potentially see a higher turnout as a result of the legislature’s draconian overreach. First off, the Republican legislature is deeply unpopular, with a 20 percent approval rating, and so is the new voting bill, with 39 percent approving and 50 percent disapproving. Seventy percent of moderates and 72 percent of African-Americans dislike the legislation. Second, the well-organized Moral Monday coalition has been mobilizing people against the legislature’s actions for months and is strongly positioned to get a lot of people to the polls. Third, the litigation against the law will keep this story in the news and make more people aware of its onerous details. Fourth, there is a competitive Senate race in North Carolina that could decide the balance of power nationally, with Democrat Kay Hagan likely facing North Carolina Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, who was named “legislator of the year” by the American Legislative Exchange Council in 2011 and is closely tied to all of the unpopular legislation passed by the General Assembly.
Republicans have done everything possible, through aggressive racial gerrymandering and onerous new voting restrictions, to protect their majorities in 2014 and beyond. In so doing, they’ve alienated a large segment of the electorate. The next election will be a good test case of the extent to which power-hungry politicians can successfully manipulate the democratic process in order to thwart the will of the people.
CORRECTION: I initially wrote that Section 2 has been used mostly for redistricting, which isn't true. Of the 1,265 successful Section 2 challenges, according to voting rights historian Morgan Kousser, 70 percent challenged at-large elections, which have been used since the passage of the VRA to thwart growing minority voting power, and 12 percent related to redistricting. "What should be emphasized," says Kousser, "is a point that you and I and many others have made before: Section 5 has primarily stopped local changes, and Section 2 has stopped changes that were already in place or in areas not covered by Section 5. While it may be that big statewide redistricting and voter id changes will attract Section 2 lawsuits, election laws in small towns and rural areas, and even in substantial cities, will either go unnoticed or be ineffectively attacked or the expense will drain voting rights lawyers." It's also worth noting that 85 percent of DOJ objections under Section 5 were to local election changes that are unlikely to be challenged under Section 2.