A federal judge has temporarily authorized North Carolina to implement a sweeping new law that threatens to reduce access to the polls, particularly for African-American, Latino, and young voters. The ruling by U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder, a George W. Bush appointee, is an early test of the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision, which overturned key parts of the Voting Rights Act. In 2000, North Carolina started rolling out efforts to make it easier to register and vote, only to yank those efforts back thirteen years later. When the state legislature was controlled by Democrats, it authorized counties to conduct up to seventeen days of early voting, including Sunday voting, which enabled black churches to transport parishioners to the polls. It also allowed citizens to register and vote on the same day. Sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds could preregister, often at their high schools, ensuring they’d be on the rolls when they turned eighteen. And voters who showed up at the wrong precinct could still cast ballots in certain races. From 1996 to 2012, the state’s ranking in turnout among voter-eligible adults shot up from 43rd to 11th, according to the United States Elections Project at George Mason University. African-American participation pulled even with white participation.
When Republicans took over the legislature in 2011—and the governor’s mansion in 2013—one of their goals was to roll back these reforms. With the high court’sShelby decision, which eliminated the Voting Rights Act’s “preclearance” requirement, they saw an opportunity to do just that. Before Shelby, places with histories of racial discrimination, including forty North Carolina counties, needed federal approval before changing election policies.
Less than seven weeks after Shelby, Governor Pat McCrory signed a bill cutting early voting to ten days and eliminating same-day registration, as well as out-of-precinct voting and youth preregistration. Starting in 2016, voters will also have to show state-issued photo identification; poll workers will not be allowed to accept student ID cards, even from state institutions. The forty-eight-page law creates a particular hardship for voters without vehicles, workers without flexible schedules, and those who are less educated and more transient.