In the final hours of the North Carolina General Assembly’s 2013 session, the Republican-controlled legislature passed House Bill 589 [PDF] (HB 589), an omnibus package of election law “reforms” aimed at further “securing the vote.” A few weeks later HB 589 was signed into law by Republican Governor Pat McCrory, despite the Governor’s initial admission that he “doesn’t know enough” about certain provisions of the legislation and in the face of growing opposition from the public. The legislation’s expected effect of diminishing the ability of North Carolina voters from casting their ballots seems incongruous with the legislation’s preamble stating in part: “[a]n act to restore confidence in government.” In effect, this legislative effort appears to be a not-so-veiled attack on voting which will make the registration process and actual act of casting a vote more onerous, particularly for the poor, minority, college-age youth and elderly voters. Until recently, 40 of North Carolina’s 100 counties were covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Prior to the US Supreme Court ruling on Shelby County v. Holder in June, election law changes impacting any of these counties (and many others nationally) required preclearance review by the US Department of Justice. The Shelby County holding invalidated Section 4 (which set forth the formula for determining those jurisdictions subject to preclearance) and effectively voided Section 5 (the preclearance provision) of the VRA. It now appears that the Court’s June decision prompted Republican members of the General Assembly to revisit previously filed legislation [PDF] intent on further restricting ballot access and scaling back current election laws knowing that the sometimes long and arduous road of preclearance would likely not need to be traveled.
Like many southern states, North Carolina’s suffrage history is complicated and marred by a history of disenfranchisement aimed at African-Americans. However, since the passage of the VRA, presidential voting among African-Americans in North Carolina has increased dramatically after previously standing as one of the worst in the country. In a landmark 1986 case Thornburg v. Gingles, the US Supreme Court explicitly noted that North Carolina had discriminated against its black citizens with respect to voting for a period stretching from 1900-1970. The Court cited continued low levels of voter registration among African-Americans due, in large part, to a history of discrimination and low socio-economic status which directly affected African-American political participation. These depressed levels of participation among African-Americans continued noticeably up until recently [PDF]. Today, North Carolina is ranked 11th in voter turnout [PDF] based on the 2012 election. Past voting reform efforts such as same day registration and provisional balloting intended to expand, rather than limit, access to the polls are seen as contributing factors in improving this statistic. HB 589 turns back the clock on years of reform and efforts to expand the access to the ballot and facilitate electoral participation.
The original elections bill [PDF], filed in April, was aimed largely at requiring photo identification for voters. The legislature passed similar legislation in 2011 but could not override the veto of then-Governor Beverly Perdue, a Democrat. With the GOP now armed with a veto-proof Republican majority in both houses (the first time since 1896) and a newly-elected Republican governor, Republicans cited photo ID legislation as a key legislative priority. HB 589, ratified on July 25, 2013 and signed by the governor on August 12, 2013, was a nearly 60 page rewrite of state election law. The bill arrived on the Senate floor for consideration mere hours before the General Assembly adjourned for the year. Controversial provisions of the bill include: a new photo identification requirement for voting, a reduction in the early vote period, ending same-day voter registration and voter pre-registration for 16 and 17 year olds, repealing straight ticket voting, eliminating provisional voting for out-of-district voters, prohibiting local Boards of Elections from extending voting times when lines are long and repealing public financing of judicial races.
Full Article: JURIST – Dateline.