North Carolina First to Tighten Voting Laws After Ruling

North Carolina became the first state to pass a more restrictive voting law following the U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a core provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The state Senate voted 33-14 today to require photo identification for voters and to limit the time-frame for early voting. The state House then approved the measure 73-41, marking the first of several state actions on voting laws predicted in the aftermath of the court’s June ruling.

Myrna Perez, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, has been among those anticipating states to respond to the court action.

The ruling “was an enormous decision with very serious consequences,” she said.

North Carolina -- because of past evidence of discrimination against African Americans -- was among the states previously required by Section 5 of the federal law to get U.S. approval before voting changes took effect statewide.

“I don’t know what’s in hearts and minds, but one of the things that was very nice about Section 5 was that it didn’t require a showing of what was in hearts and minds,” Perez said, referring to the act’s empirical requirements for proving discrimination.

“The right to vote is at stake” following the court ruling, she said. “Persons’ ability to have a say in our ability in the country to have free and fair elections is at stake.”

Justice Action

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced today that the Justice Department will petition a federal court in Texas to force that state to be subject to “a preclearance regime similar to the one required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.” Texas would have to obtain pre-approval from either the department or a federal court before making voting changes when intentional voting discrimination is found, he said.

The federal government presented evidence of intentional racial discrimination in a redistricting case in Texas last year, he said, “as well as the history of pervasive voting-related discrimination against racial minorities.”

“This is the department’s first action to protect voting rights” following the court ruling, Holder said at a meeting of the National Urban League in Philadelphia today, “but it will not be our last.”

Holder said: “Even as Congress considers updates to the Voting Rights Act in light of the court’s ruling, we plan, in the meantime, to fully utilize the law’s remaining sections to ensure that the voting rights of all American citizens are protected.”

‘Flawed’ Decision

Holder called the Supreme Court decision “deeply disappointing - and flawed.”

The focus on voting laws comes as the U.S. is undergoing a demographic transformation affecting its politics, with states such as North Carolina moving from being reliably Republican to competitive on the presidential level as a result of the changing makeup of their residents.

North Carolina’s Hispanic population has grown from 4.7 percent in 2000 to 8.4 percent in 2010, the nation’s sixth-fastest gain, according to the University of North Carolina Charlotte Urban Institute. President Barack Obama won the state in 2008, and then lost it to Republican Mitt Romney, 50 percent to 48 percent, in 2012 even though the incumbent didn’t actively campaign there.

The voting issue may spread to Texas, Mississippi and Alabama legislatures, said Rafael Collazo, director of political campaigns for the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic civil rights advocacy organization in the U.S.

Carolina Changes

The bill approved by the Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature requires that voters present a government-issued photo identification at the polls rather than the current system that also allows for use of student ID cards issued by the state’s public universities and community colleges.

The measure also shortens the early-voting period before Election Day, ends same-day registration and prohibits high school students from registering before their 18th birthdays.

Governor Pat McCrory, a Republican elected in November, is expected to sign the bill into law.

The legislation’s chief supporter, Republican state Senator Tom Apodaca, told the News & Observer of Raleigh on July 18: “We want a state-issued ID or a federal issued ID” because college IDs “could be manipulated.”

Restoring ‘Confidence’

Another Republican supporter of the bill, state Senator Bob Rucho, said in an interview today that the measure was needed to “re-establish a level of confidence in the system.”

Photo identification is required to “go into Bank of America to cash a check, to take care of welfare papers or to go on an airplane,” he said.

Shortening the time window for early voting is designed to achieve consistency in all the state’s polling places, he said. say the bill would limit turnout by newer voters who are younger and newly registered minorities.

“In my opinion, it is the most radical voter suppression bill in America,” said state Representative Duane Hall, a Democrat. “They have taken parts of bills from all over the country and combined them into one.”

“We firmly understand now and somewhat expected this will take place, where many states will in some ways make it more difficult to vote,” Collazo said.

The impact of the Supreme Court decision may fall most harshly on Hispanics who seek to vote for the first time, Collazo said. “A third of Latino voters are in areas previously covered by Section Five of the Voting Rights Act,” he said.

Hispanic Community

“The fact that it was overturned is very concerning to us because of the growing of the Hispanic community and more minority voters potentially.” Collazo said: “We felt we needed more protection, not less.”

In a report for the Brennan Center, a non-partisan law and public policy institute, Perez said voting rights “could be threatened on a number of fronts.”

She wrote that states may re-enact discriminatory voting changes that had been stopped by Section 5, noting that the Justice Department blocked 31 proposals since 2006, when the act was reauthorized by Congress. States also could adopt discriminatory changes that were withdrawn after the Justice Department raised questions, she said, or implement changes that had been in abeyance pending Section 5 review.

If a state adopts changes close to an election, she said, “there may be little or no practical recourse for voters” because court challenges can be costly and lengthy.

Split Ruling

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision struck down the Voting Rights Act formula for determining which states must get federal approval before changing election rules, leaving the preclearance provision without force unless Congress approves a new method for determining which jurisdictions are covered.

“Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court.

Democratic leaders in Congress have criticized the ruling, and one House Republican, Representative James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, has said the decision “severely weakened” ballot protections. He is urging his colleagues to rewrite the provision before the 2014 elections.

“Voter discrimination still exists, and our progress toward equality should not be mistaken for a final victory,” Sensenbrenner said July 18.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.