“The history of North Carolina is not on trial here,” Butch Bowers, a lawyer for Governor Pat McCrory, told a court in Winston-Salem on Monday. Pace Bowers, that’s precisely what’s on trial over the next two weeks. A group of plaintiffs—including the Justice Department, NAACP, and League of Women Voters—are suing the state over new voting laws implemented in 2013, saying that they represent an attempt to suppress the minority vote. The new laws were passed shortly after the Supreme Court struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act that required some jurisdictions to seek approval from the federal government before altering voting laws. All of those jurisdictions had been found to have voting practices that disenfranchised minorities; most of them were in the South. The new rules required a photo ID to vote; reduced early voting; ended same-day voter registration; banned the practice of casting ballots out of precinct; and ended pre-registration for teens. (The General Assembly later amended the photo-ID law, which had been the strictest in the nation, and it’s not being considered in the trial.)
In many ways, this case is similar to other ones around the country over the past few years. There’s little serious dispute that these tools were more heavily used by black voters than white ones. The arguments have been rehearsed over and over: Minority voters tend to be poorer and less educated; it’s more difficult for them to take time to wait in long polling lines, making early voting necessary; they’re more likely to miss a registration deadline or changes in voting spots.
But McCrory and his fellow Republicans in the legislature argue that the rules apply equally to everyone in the state, and that they’re necessary to guarantee the sanctity of the vote. The argument offers an appealing simplicity, but the problem is that repeated efforts have failed to find evidence of widespread, or even somewhat common, voter fraud. As a result, the laws seem to be solving a problem that doesn’t exist—while going out of their way to make it more diffic