For all the understandable attention devoted to removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds, a civil rights struggle with far more practical consequences is playing out one state away. In a trial that just began in a federal courthouse in North Carolina last week, lawyers for the Justice Department and civil rights organizations are challenging a state law that limited the days for early voting, ended same-day registration and barred voters who turned up at the wrong precinct. The case presents the stark question: 50 years after its passage, does the Voting Rights Act retain any teeth? Two years ago in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court gutted a central aspect of the law, the “pre-clearance” provision requiring nine states and political subdivisions, mostly in the South, to submit proposed changes in voting procedures for federal approval.
“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the five-justice majority. In any event, he noted, another key provision of the law remained intact. “Our decision,” Roberts wrote, “in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting found in Section 2.
”The North Carolina case tests the effectiveness of Section 2 in an age when voting discrimination does not take the ugly, obvious form of literacy tests or poll taxes. Rather, it involves “second-generation barriers,” such as racial gerrymandering to dilute African American votes. And, increasingly, provisions such as those in North Carolina, including photo ID requirements (the state eased its voter ID rules, so that part of the dispute is postponed).