North Carolina is carefully being watched as a federal trial is underway that will determine if its 2013 election law is illegal. The plaintiffs, including the US Justice Department, North Carolina NAACP and the North Carolina League of Women Voters, are tasked with proving that North Carolina’s election law reform, known as HB589, was created and enacted to intentionally discriminate against minorities and voters under 25.
The effect of the ruling will reach every state that has enacted restrictive election laws after the 2013 SCOTUS ruling blocking the Voting Rights Act of 1965’s pre-clearance requirement. In fact, the Justice Department is specially requesting that North Carolina’s election laws be put back under a federal pre-clearance requirement as a part of the case.
In 2013, days after SCOTUS ruling, the North Carolina General Assembly pushed what is often characterized as the most restrictive anti-voter law in the country. The legislation was pushed through in 2 days, with 20 minutes of public comment on the Senate floor and none allowed in the House.
During the prior 15 years the state legislature took intentional steps to improve voter participation and turn out, especially among young and minority voters. Same-day registration, 17 days of early voting, pre-registration for those who would be 18 on or before the next election and out-of-precinct voting were hallmarks of these researched efforts. In 1988 North Carolina was ranked 48th in the country for voter turn-out and by 2012 ranked 11th with 65% of eligible voters voting.
In opening statements North Carolina claimed that the measures of HB589 were adopted to enhance voter confidence and achieve administrative savings, and that they were not discriminatory because they affected all races equally. That state went on to claim that North Carolina is simply following the trend of election laws across the country and that its history should not be the subject of the trial.
The plaintiffs in the case are in stark ideological contrast with the state. Penda Hair, council for the NAACP, stated that “The law teaches it is the impact that matters — an impact that is linked to social and historical conditions — not whether a law explicitly says African-American or Latinos are not allowed to vote…”
Rev William Barber, the head of NC’s NAACP, has said “This is our Selma” in reference to the trial. Like Barber, many election reform and civil rights advocates have long claimed that the recent wave of voter restrictions targets young people and minorities to directly prevent voters that many assume vote for progressive candidates.
However, the challenge remains to establish intentional discrimination. Did the NC legislature know the consequences of its actions? Were those consequences the reason for the election reform?
North Carolina Senator Josh Stein, a veteran senator that opposed HB589, testified on July 21 on behalf of the Plaintiffs. Stein described his testimony on Facebook “I testified about the substance of the bill, the Senate debate, and the poor process by which it was enacted. During the Rules Committee hearing and the floor debate, my colleagues and I informed the Senate that the bill would disproportionately impact young people and minorities because those groups disproportionately utilized the reforms that were being eliminated. ”
While it seems quite clear that lawmakers should surely have understood the consequences of their actions, the question remains if HB589 was put into place intentionally because of its impact on minority voters. The trial is expected to last into August, through the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act
Let’s all keep paying attention as the battle for an equitable system to support civic engagement is ongoing, even 50 years after the VRA and 95 years after the 19th Amendment.