Shortly after Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election, the former chair of the North Carolina Republican party wrote an anxious postmortem saying something had to be done about the students and black voters whose unprecedented turnout had turned the state blue for the first time in 32 years. The alternative, the former state chair Jack Hawke wrote, was that the country would “continue to slide toward socialism”. That “something” turned out to be a notorious omnibus law – better known to its detractors as the “monster law” – passed by a Republican-majority state legislature in 2013. The legislation gutted many of the progressive voting rules that had contributed to Obama’s razor-thin margin in the state: same-day registration, a lengthy early voting period and out-of-precinct voting by provisional ballot – all favored disproportionately by African American voters and students. The law also introduced a strict voter ID requirement, with the anticipated effect of suppressing Democratic votes even further.
Had the law stood, it could have been the biggest setback for voting rights in North Carolina since the Jim Crow era, a brazen attempt by conservatives to upend the rules of democratic engagement and block access to groups most likely to oppose them. The Republicans have sought to couch their maneuvering in more benign terms, as a form of justifiable partisan warfare. Hawke noted in his postmortem that the Democrats had been motivated, united and well-financed in 2008, and said it was up to the Republicans to respond in kind.
That argument has come crashing down, following a flurry of remarkable court rulings over the past two weeks accusing North Carolina and three other Republican-run states – Wisconsin, Kansas and Texas – of violating the 1965 Voting Rights Act and intentionally discriminating against African Americans and other classes of voters. State and federal judges have struck down laws that could have given the Republicans a significant edge in close races this November, lifting the spirits of voting rights activists who have been campaigning against such laws for more than a decade.
“Winning an election does not empower anyone in any party to engage in purposeful racial discrimination,” the fourth circuit court of appeals ruled in the North Carolina case on Friday. “When a legislature dominated by one party has dismantled barriers to African American access to the franchise, even if done to gain votes, ‘politics as usual’ does not allow a legislature dominated by the other party to re-erect those barriers.”