Exile on Jones Street: Justice — a slow train coming

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kirk rossby Kirk Ross

There are a few things utterly predictable when you have a branch of government or two leaning farther to one pole of the political spectrum than the people they serve.

In the case of the almighty legislative branch here in North Carolina, among the utterly predictable is that certain laws and acts are going to end up in court.

This week in Winston-Salem we see the legal challenge unfolding to one of the prime changes of the post-2010 legislative leadership, the notorious VIVA — the Voter Identification Verification Act of 2013. Since its inception and passage, the act’s supporters have stuck to the same script, calling it Voter ID legislation as if it were just that.

It is, of course, much more. The bill, a 49-page omnibus laden with new voting rules, registration changes and election procedures, was an inevitability, the GOP majority’s first crack at elections laws since wining control of the General Assembly and the governorship.

After decades of undoing Jim Crow election and registration rules and expanding voting options, including enacting early voting, it was clear from the outset that the new legislation would be the first in a long time to make it harder to vote.

It arrived amid an amped-up atmosphere of suspicion. Loosely based claims of widespread vote fraud were taken as serious fact to justify the changes, a strategy that continues to this day here and elsewhere.

Forty of North Carolina’s 100 counties were under pre-clearance requirements, which would have given the Justice Department a chance to reject portions of the bill.

The bill might have been tempered were it not for the Supreme Court’s ruling late last June in Shelby County v. Holder, which cut this state — and others with a history of vote suppression — free from pre-clearance by the US Justice Department when it comes to election-law changes. Forty of North Carolina’s 100 counties were under pre-clearance requirements, which would have given the Justice Department a chance to reject portions of the bill.

Last year, VIVA sat idle between its passage by the House in April and the court’s ruling. When the bill returned post-ruling via the Senate Rules Committee, it was much tougher, notably in the ID restrictions. The number of acceptable IDs fell from 14 to seven. Student IDs, even those issued by state universities and community colleges, along with IDs issued to police, EMS and firefighters and by local governments and public assistance agencies were no longer accepted.

It’s easy to get hung up on the ID issue, but any look at the stats, including a recent, extensive study out of Dartmouth University, shows a disproportionate impact on minority voters. It’s one of the reasons the Justice Department is among the groups arguing for an injunction against the law taking effect until it gets a closer look by the courts.

But the ID change is far from the only reason for the challenges, and that’s why it is a good thing when the rhetoric behind legislation like this gets greater scrutiny in the courts. At least now the greater insults to democracy embedded in the bill will get a much fuller, fairer review.

They include shortening the number of days for early voting from 17 days to 10 and eliminating pre-registration of teens, both of which the Dartmouth study found had a disproportional effect on black voters.

Those alone appear to violate the Voting Rights Act, at least the part that didn’t get struck down, and could even lead to a ruling allowing the Justice Department to use the so-called “bail in” provision. That would place North Carolina back under pre-clearance requirements.

And there are some aspects of the law that are troubling even without a deep dive into statistics and voting patters.

Lawmakers, presumably driven by the voting-fraud horror stories, expanded the ability to challenge votes and greatly expanded the number of party-appointed observers. They also opened the door for more changes to be enacted on early-voting sites and other procedures at the county level, a significant act since the boards’ partisan balance flipped with the change in governorship.

We’ve already seen several instances of county boards changing precinct lines and early-voting sites in ways that disproportionately affect minority and student voters. Whenever challenges to these moves arise, their proponents often fall back on baseless charges of abuse and fraud by students, “illegals,” or simply “those people.” To defend maneuvering for partisan advantage in such a way is a particularly cowardly and poisonous act.

The court may not give the challengers to this legislation everything they want, but it will do this state and the nation a great service if it strips the thin, cynical veneer of fraud away from the debate and exposes the raw, racial politics that lies beneath.