“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in 2013, when the Supreme Court freed Southern states from the requirement that federal authorities approve any proposed election-law change in order to ensure minority voters were not harmed. Republican lawmakers in North Carolina appeared to take that as a go signal; they immediately unveiled a previously private plan to overhaul the state’s voting procedures. A 14-page bill that would require voters to show specific kinds of identification was replaced with a 57-page omnibus package. It rolled back or repealed a number of voting procedures that civil rights leaders say had made the state a leader in increasing African American voter turnout. It was approved along party lines.
What is known as House Bill 589 has been the subject of court battles ever since. A federal trial nearing completion here on the state’s changes is being watched nationwide for signals about what the Voting Rights Act of 1965 still means after the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decision two years ago in Shelby County v. Holder.
Lawyers and civil rights officials suing North Carolina speak in historic and apocalyptic terms about the case, to the annoyance of state officials. The striking slogan they have adopted: “Our Selma.”
It is an indication that the legal battle represents more than simply plumbing the limits of the Voting Rights Act and the importance of minority turnout in the 2016 presidential campaign.