Citizen Green: A split verdict on the monster voter suppression law?

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Jordan Greenby Jordan Green

The federal courts have struck down voter-ID laws in Wisconsin and Texas, along with provisions that make it more onerous for citizens to conduct voter-registration drives in Florida, part of a coordinated wave of election laws passed by GOP-controlled state legislatures to suppress minority voting and inflict damage on Democratic adversaries.

Those court precedents don’t bode well for certain parts of North Carolina’s omnibus “monster” elections bill, which was passed by the Republican-controlled legislature and signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory last year, particularly as it pertains to voter ID.

As US District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder wrote in a 125-page opinion released on Aug. 11, the Republican sponsors of North Carolina’s voter ID bill requested racially specific information about registered voters cross-referenced with DMV records to determine which voters did not have drivers licenses in March 2013. It probably comes as no surprise to anyone that, considering that blacks have a higher rate of poverty and are less likely have access to a vehicle, the voter ID requirement has a racially disparate impact. The state lawmakers’ interest in the racial makeup of voters affected under the new law is significant because establishing a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requires proof of discriminatory intent.

But opponents of North Carolina’s election law have emphasized other provisions as violating the rights of black voters too, pivoting from voter ID to the elimination of same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting, along with reduction of early-voting days. Black voters have used all three practices at a higher rate than their white counterparts. The state is being sued by the NAACP, the League of Women Voters and numerous other citizens groups, along with the federal government, in an attempt to overturn the law. While voter ID might be struck down when the case goes to trial next summer, Schroeder’s recent opinion suggests that the elimination of same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting, along with reduced early-voting days, might be here to stay.

Schroeder rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that implementing the changes regarding same-day registration, out-of-precinct balloting and early voting during the upcoming November election would cause irreparable harm and should be suspended until the case goes to trial. The opinion also included a finding that the plaintiffs are unlikely to succeed in proving their case at trial.

The judge did acknowledged North Carolina’s “unfortunate history of official discrimination in voting,” while recognizing continuing barriers to access.

“Plaintiffs’ expert testimony demonstrates that black citizens of North Carolina currently lag behind whites in several key socioeconomic indicators, including education, employment income, access to transportation, and residential stability,” he wrote. “He also presented unrebutted testimony that black North Carolinians have used [same-day registration] at a higher rate than whites in the three federal elections during which SDR was offered.”

Schroeder concluded that North Carolinians of all races have ample opportunity to register to vote through government agencies such as the DMV and social services, along with citizen voter registration drives. He added that the new law allows a voter who has moved within the county to update their registration during the 10 days of early voting, after the registration cutoff.

While the judge found that evidence of the legislators’ “discriminatory animus certainly raises suspicions,” there is “at least equally compelling evidence that the lawmakers acted rather for a legitimate state interest.

He cited testimony by former state Board of Election Executive Director Gary Bartlett that during the 2008, 2010 and 2012 elections, county boards of election sometimes lacked sufficient time to verify new registrations entered into the queue through SDR. As a result, thousands of ballots were counted that were not and could not be properly verified. From my own reporting, I can attest that former employees at the Forsyth County Board of Elections said they were overwhelmed by the task of processing new voter registrations during early voting in the 2008 general election.

“It is sufficient for the state to voice concern that SDR burdened [county boards of election] and left adequate time for elections officials to properly verify voters before the canvass and that unverified votes were counted as a result,” Schroeder wrote. “In fact, the state has more than an interest in allowing time for verification — it has a duty to ensure that unverified voters do not have their votes counted in an election.”

Irving Joyner, a law professor at NC Central University, told reporters on Monday that Schroeder’s opinion was “not fatal” to efforts to overturn the law.

“North Carolina will have to work harder because of the law — African Americans will have to work harder because of this law, and they will bear a disproportionate burden of getting people out to the polls to vote.”

Here’s the rub: Laws that raise barriers to voting do have a disproportionate impact on certain classes of people, including African-Americans, Latinos, the poor, young people, the disabled and seniors. At the same time, it’s not that hard to vote, even under the monster elections law. Individually, we each hold a responsibility to inform ourselves of the issues and the candidates, and vote in every election, not just the exciting presidential contests. Too many people have sacrificed their very lives to expand democracy for us to take this sacred duty for granted.