Last week, a panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously rebuked the North Carolina legislature for acting with “discriminatory intent” in passing restrictions on the right to vote that “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” The decision came as we approach the 51st anniversary of the Voting Rights Act on August 6. Reinforced by similar rulings in the appellate court in Texas and a district court in Wisconsin, the decision is a victory for our democracy and our Constitution.
The voting impediments were passed by North Carolina in 2013 in the wake of the Supreme decision in Shelby v. Holder which struck down the central provision of the Voting Rights Act: the requirement that areas with a history of discrimination gain prior approval from the Justice Department before changing voting regulations. Chief Justice John Roberts, the activist Republican judge, decided to rewrite the law that was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, arguing that since we now live in a “post-racial society,” requiring prior approval for voting law changes was no longer justified. The flood of legislation that followed — all erecting barriers to make voting harder for African-Americans in particular — proved the chief justice’s fantasy was a lie.
In North Carolina, the legislature acted immediately after the Supreme Court decision came down. Its motivation, the Fourth Circuit panel found, was clear. African-American turnout had surged in 2008 and 2012 (with Barack Obama at the head of the Democratic ticket), nearing parity with the turnout of white voters for the first time. Obama had taken the state in 2008 and lost it closely in 2012. But in 2010, conservative Republicans had taken control of the legislature and the statehouse.
The new majority acted aggressively to fend off the threat posed by growing African-American turnout. As Judge Diana Motz, writing for the unanimous panel, summarized, the legislators “requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices. Upon receipt of the race data, the General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration in five different ways, all of which disproportionately affected African-Americans.”
The three-judge panel in Richmond, Virginia, unanimously concluded that the law was racially discriminatory, overturning a requirement that voters show photo identification to vote and restoring same-day voter registration, a week of early voting, pre-registration for teenagers, and out-of-precinct voting.
As Ari Berman, the voting rights expert who reports for The Nation magazine noted, the decision comes after North Carolina’s presidential primary in March provided a troubling indication of what might be expected in the general election — students waiting in three-hour lines, foreign-born U.S. citizens asked to spell their names to poll workers for no reason, and elderly voters born during Jim Crow turned away from the polls for not meeting the new ID requirements.
“The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals exposed for the world to see the racist intent of the extremist element of our government in North Carolina,” exulted the Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, on a press call Friday afternoon. “The ruling is a people’s victory, and it is a victory that sends a message to the nation.”
Dr. Martin Luther King led the movement that culminated in the Voting Rights Act over a half-century ago. He understood that voting was the foundational right of citizenship. To strip someone of the right to vote is to strip them of their place in a self-governing community. In a 1957 speech entitled “Give Us the Ballot,” King argued “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind — it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen observing the laws I have helped to enact — I can only submit to the edict of others.”
King understood that discriminatory election laws not only hurt minorities or the working poor, they also undermined the legitimacy of our elections and thus of our government.
The North Carolina decision and similar decisions in Texas and Wisconsin offer the hope that the courts will act to frustrate at least the most blatant versions of new Jim Crow laws. Those decisions will remove barriers for literally millions of voters.
But the courts can only reaffirm the right to vote. That right is not effective if it is not used. The courts have lowered the barriers in North Carolina and other states. Now the citizens must mobilize and vote in large numbers to exercise the power that they have.