Voting law on trial

| July 14, 2015

692002-tn_ballet-voteEditorial by Greensboro News-Record, July 14, 2015.

The voting rights trial that opened in federal court in Winston-Salem Monday is getting a wide audience but may not measure up to its big claims.

“This is our Selma,” North Carolina NAACP President William Barber III said about the issues at stake. But this isn’t about black people systematically being denied the right to vote as in 1965 Alabama. Instead, the question is whether Republican legislators and Gov. Pat McCrory placed discriminatory restrictions on voting in a 2013 law that purported to “restore confidence” in the election process.

The authors of the legislation said they wanted to prevent voter fraud, although they didn’t provide evidence of a significant problem. The provisions they enacted — requiring a state-issued photo ID, shortening early voting and eliminating same-day registration, preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds, out-of-precinct voting and straight-ticket voting — could be viewed as efforts to discourage voting in ways that would disproportionately affect minority or Democratic-leaning voters.

Republicans scoff at such assertions. But who would deny that the political party in power uses gerrymandering to produce huge partisan advantages? So why is it hard to believe it would use other election laws to give itself an edge?

In North Carolina, Democrats made it easier to register and vote by enacting the same provisions that Republicans, after McCrory took office in 2013, stripped away. Democrats saw it as advantageous to encourage more voting by minorities and young people. Republicans saw a disadvantage in that. Both parties acted from partisan motives; the difference is that Democrats acted in favor of easier voting.

The question is whether Republicans violated the law. In court, their lawyers argue that some states don’t allow in-person early voting, so how can it be illegal for North Carolina to reduce the number of early voting days from 17 to 10? Where does the Voting Rights Act say a state must give 16- and 17-year-olds a chance to preregister? Or allow same-day registration?

The most onerous component of the 2013 law, which drew the most opposition, was the photo ID requirement. That’s not part of the trial now, since the legislature substantially eased that requirement earlier this summer. The plaintiffs’ arguments suddenly lost some of their power, thanks to the legislature’s timely retreat.

The case is still attracting national attention, largely because voting restrictions have been part of a national Republican strategy. The ultimate decision here could affect other states. There’s enough at stake for North Carolina’s Republican U.S. senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, to have voted against the confirmation of Greensboro native Loretta Lynch as attorney general because she refused to renounce the Justice Department’s opposition to the North Carolina law.

It may not be a “voter suppression” measure, as critics allege. It is a voter discouragement law, not intended to prevent fraud but to make it a little less convenient for qualified North Carolina residents to register and vote. If legislators’ motives could be put on trial, the law would be overturned. The legal questions may be tougher to judge.

Category: NC SPIN Perspectives - Opinions from NC Leaders & Organizations

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