North Carolina Sued by U.S. Over Voter-Law Restrictions

The U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit challenging voting restrictions adopted by North Carolina, alleging they discriminate against minority voters.

The suit challenges the state’s voter-identification requirement and limits on early voting. It also asks the court to require federal pre-approval for voting-law changes in the state.

The lawsuit is the second voting rights case initiated by the Justice Department since the Supreme Court on June 25 threw out a major piece of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, rolling back a law that opened the polls to millions of southern blacks. North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature on July 25 became the first to adopt more restrictive voting laws after the high court’s decision.

“This law we think will have a disproportionate negative impact on minority voters,” Attorney General Eric Holder said during a news conference announcing the suit in Washington. “People who are young, people of color, people who are poor.”

The focus on voting laws comes as the U.S. undergoes a demographic transformation affecting its politics. States such as North Carolina are moving from being reliably Republican to competitive for Democrats in presidential elections amid the changing racial and ethnic makeup of their residents.

Hispanic Population

Hispanics made up 8.4 percent of North Carolina’s population in 2010, up from 4.7 percent in 2000, the nation’s sixth-fastest gain, according to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Democratic President Barack Obama won the state in 2008; four years later he lost it to Republican Mitt Romney, 50 percent to 48 percent.

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, a Republican who signed the law in July, told reporters in Raleigh that the Justice Department lawsuit was “an overreach and without merit.”

“Protecting the integrity of every vote is one of the most important duties that I have as governor,” McCrory said.

The suit challenges the reduction of early voting to 10 days from 17 days and the elimination of same-day voter registration during early voting.

It also takes issue with a section of the law that prevents counties from counting provisional ballots cast in a voter’s home county if they were cast in the wrong precinct.

The early voting reductions, elimination of same-day registration and the provisional ballot rules are slated to take effect in 2014. A fourth requirement, for government-issued photo identification in order to vote, is due to be implemented in 2016.

ID Requirement

Before the change in law, there was no state requirement for registered voters to present an ID in order to cast a ballot, according to the complaint.

In imposing an ID requirement, the state legislature narrowed the list of acceptable forms of identification, eliminating documents issued by the University of North Carolina and local governments, Justice Department lawyers wrote.

The complaint cites criticism of the changes by North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, who “publicly urged the governor in a letter to veto the legislation, saying that the bill was ‘‘regressive’’ and would make it harder for working people to vote during the early voting period,” Justice Department lawyers said in the suit.

Cooper also criticized the provision prohibiting the counting of provisional ballots cast outside of the voter’s home precinct, and described the new photo identification requirements as “unnecessary, expensive, and burdensome,” according to the filing.

‘Disproportionately Impacted’

Justice Department lawyers argued that minorities in North Carolina are disproportionately impacted by the disputed provisions in the suit.

“In the November 2008 and November 2012 general elections, African Americans were about twice as likely as white voters to use same-day registration,” according to the complaint.

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling on The Voting Rights Act June 25 said Congress couldn’t use a decades-old formula for requiring all or part of 15 states with histories of discrimination, including North Carolina, to get federal approval before changing their election rules.

That day, Holder said the Justice Department would use “every legal tool that remains available to us” to fight state laws it viewed as discriminatory.

The Voting Rights Act’s Section 2 allows the Justice Department to sue over voting rules or procedures that “purposefully discriminate.” Section 3 creates a procedure allowing courts to order jurisdictions to get pre-approval for voting changes.

Texas Lawsuit

In July and August, the Justice Department went to court to challenge Texas’s voter-identification rules and voting maps. That lawsuit said black and Hispanic voters disproportionately lack the kind of identification required in the law.

Texas Governor Rick Perry called the government’s move an “effort to obstruct the will of the people.”

While Congress could adopt a new formula for requiring pre-approval of voting changes, the chances of gaining agreement among deeply divided lawmakers are slim.

Democratic leaders in Congress have criticized the Supreme Court 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.

The case is U.S. v. North Carolina, 13-cv-861, U.S. District Court, Middle District of North Carolina (Winston-Salem).

(Updates with comment by governor in seventh paragraph.)
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