USDOJ sues North Carolina to block restrictive election law

The US Justice Department filed suit in an attempt to block North Carolina's new election law in Greensboro today.

The civil complaint filed in the US District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina alleges that the HB 589, which was signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory on Aug. 12, "was enacted with the purpose of denying or abridging the right of African Americans to vote on account of their race or color," in violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

"Against a backdrop of the state's history of voting discrimination against African Americans and a dramatic increase in the state's African-American voter turnout rates during the November general elections in 2008 and 2012, North Carolina enacted HB 589 with knowledge of the disproportionate effect that numerous provisions, both singly and together, would have on the equal political participation of minority voters," the lawsuit contends. "These provisions include the reduction of the early voting period, the elimination of same-day voter registration and the imposition of voter photo identification requirements without reasonable safeguards for voters who face barriers to obtaining such identification."

The federal government argues that members of the NC General Assembly were aware of the state's history of voting discrimination, the dramatic increase in black turnout through early voting and same-day registration and the disproportionate effect of the recent changes when they voted to approve the legislation.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis reacted swiftly to the lawsuit in a prepared statement.

"The Obama Justice Department's baseless claims about North Carolina's election reform law are nothing more than an obvious attempt to quash the will of the voters and hinder a hugely popular voter ID requirement," the said. "The law was designed to improve consistency, clarity and uniformity at the polls and it bring North Carolina's election system in line with a majority of other states. We are confident it protects the right of all voters, as required by the US and North Carolina constitutions."

Berger, a lawyer in Eden who represents Rockingham County and part of Guilford County, has been running an online video campaign ad promoting the voter ID law that attacks President Obama and US Sen. Kay Hagan for the past three weeks. Berger has flirted with an election challenge against Hagan, but the ad identifies him with his current post in the NC Senate. Tillis has already announced plans to run against Hagan.

"Voter ID prevents fraud and protects the integrity of our elections," the state senator says in the ad. "It's common sense."

The NC NAACP applauded the Justice Department's intervention.

"The Southern strategy of the well-funded, nationally-coordinated ultra-right has convinced many Republican moderates that the only way they can hold on to political power in Washington, and the South, is to drastically suppress voting rights for minorities," said William J. Barber II, president of the NC NAACP. "We need every resource, including the US government, to help us expose the national conspiracy behind this movement to suppress targeted constituencies in the new Southern electorate."

The US government argues that North Carolina has a history of voting-related suppression against African Americans that leads up to the present, which the lawsuit contends is "long-standing, well-documented and judicially recognized." The lawsuit cites Gingles v. Edmisen, a 1984 case heard in the Eastern District of North Carolina that concluded that the state  "officially and effectively discriminated against black citizens in matters touching their exercise of the voting franchise... from ca. 1900 to ca. 1970."

Supporting the claim that "race continues to be a significant and, oftentimes, divisive factor" in North Carolina elections, the government argues that "the continued effects of discrimination on African-American citizens in North Carolina, including their markedly lower socioeconomic conditions relative to white citizens, continue to hinder their ability to participate effectively in the political process in North Carolina.

The complaint adds that "racial appeals have characterized certain political campaigns in North Carolina" (no specific examples are cited, but "White Hands" comes to mind) and argues that "many elected officials in North Carolina have not been responsive to the particularized needs of African Americans."

In addition to arguing that HB 589 was motivated by a discriminatory purpose — the harder climb for the plaintiff — the government also argues that the implementation of the new law will have a discriminatory result.

The lawsuit notes that the new law reduces the number of days in early voting and eliminates same-day registration — both of which black voters have used to a greater extent than their white counterparts. The complaint also notes that black voters are more likely to cast out-of-precinct provisional ballots — a practice that will be eliminated under the new law — and disproportionately lack photo IDs — a requirement under the law.

"The process of obtaining valid photo identification under HB 589 will impose a substantial and disproportionate burden on thousands of African-American voters in North Carolina who are disproportionately poor and disproportionately lack access to transportation," the lawsuit argues.

"Several changes mandated by HB 589 — including, among others, the reduction in number of early voting days, the elimination of same-day registration, the prohibition on counting out-of-precinct provisional ballots, and the imposition of a voter photo identification requirement — will act in combination to produce an even greater discriminatory impact on African-American voters than would each individual change standing alone," the complaint continues. "These provisions will operate in concert, resulting in unequal access for African-American voters to the political process."  

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