Anyone wondering about the importance of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling hobbling a key part of the Voting Rights Act needs look no further than North Carolina, whose Republican legislature is poised to enact one of the strictest voting laws in the Nation, one which will make it harder to register and vote, likely hurting minority voters most. North Carolina is making it harder to vote now because it can, but recent experience in Florida and elsewhere shows it is a decision North Carolina Republicans may come to regret. Until last month, 40 of North Carolina’s 100 counties were covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This meant that the state could not make any changes in its voting rules, however major or minor, without first getting permission from either the U.S. Department of Justice or a three-judge court in Washington D.C. To get approval, it was up to North Carolina to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the feds that any proposed voting changes wouldn’t have the purpose or effect of making minority members worse off.
Fat chance the DOJ or a three-judge court would have given approval of House Bill 589, at least as it passed out of a Senate Committee after a raucous session this week. The bill is a nightmare for voting rights advocates: not only does it include a strict voter ID law and provision shortening early voting and eliminating same-day voter registration for early voting, it is a laundry list of ways to make it harder for people to vote, and which cannot plausibly be justified on anti-fraud grounds.
Thanks to the Supreme Court, this measure no longer requires federal approval before it can go into effect. And while we can be sure that voting rights advocates will challenge this law in court once it passes, they will do so under much tougher voting rights standards. Many of these laws could well pass constitutional review under other Roberts Court precedents which have been none-too-friendly to voting rights and challenges to voter identification laws. There seems little doubt that the Republican legislature has passed these laws in an attempt to gain partisan advantage. As Nate Cohn explains, a recent study by the North Carolina Secretary of State’s office on just the voter ID portion of the law certainly would have its greatest negative impact on non-white voters likely to vote for Democrats, and likely many other parts of the law will as well.