“Now we can go with the full bill.” That was a North Carolina legislator’s promise, just hours after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision invalidating powerful protections against discriminatory voting rules. Out went the modest proposal. In came a bill designed to shrink the electorate. The legislature passed a law targeting specific practices — including same-day registration and early voting — that had helped drive recent surges in minority voter turnout. The law was aimed directly at the ways that communities of color participated in the electoral process. It took three years, but on Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit struck down the North Carolina law. The court wrote that the law “target[s] African Americans with almost surgical precision” and found that, “because of race, the legislature enacted one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history.”
Not long ago, we could stop laws like this before they took effect. But the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder struck down a core part of the Voting Rights Act. The act used to require jurisdictions with the most troubling histories of discrimination to run new voting rules by the Justice Department or a federal court before those rules could be implemented. Shelby County nullified the way jurisdictions were chosen for this review process, leaving no pre-clearance at all. Discriminatory laws can now take effect without federal clearance.
This problem extends far beyond North Carolina, as Sammie Louise Bates discovered firsthand. She moved to Texas and wanted to vote in her new state, but under the strict requirements of Texas’s voter ID law, she didn’t have the documents she needed. Neither did more than half a million other Texans. Bates — an elderly African American woman — lived on a fixed income of $321 per month, and the birth certificate she needed to get a Texas ID cost $42. As she testified, “I had to put the $42 where it was doing the most good . . . because we couldn’t eat the birth certificate . . . and we couldn’t pay rent with the birth certificate.” Fourteen federal judges — judges appointed by both Democratic and Republican presidents — have agreed that the law violates the Voting Rights Act. But it was only two weeks ago, after a decision by the full 5th Circuit, that Texas was required to break down this barrier.