WASHINGTON — The U.S. Justice Department’s lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s controversial voter ID law is the Obama administration’s latest forceful response to a Supreme Court decision that critics say gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
By claiming North Carolina legislators “intentionally” discriminated against minorities, the administration has taken up another fight with a Southern state over its voting laws.
“We cannot, we must not, and we will not simply stand by as the voices of those disproportionately affected by some of the proposals we’ve seen – including the North Carolina minority communities impacted by the provisions we challenge today – are shut out of the process of self-governance,” Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday.
The North Carolina ID law was signed by Gov. Pat McCrory in August, two months after the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act that required jurisdictions with a history of discrimination, many of them in the South, to seek federal approval before changing voter laws.
Holder called the Supreme Court decision flawed and said the lawsuit will ask that a court impose that “preclearance” requirement on North Carolina.
The Justice Department is challenging a number of the law’s provisions: a requirement that voters show a valid, government-issued ID before casting a vote; elimination of a week of early voting and same-day registration during early voting; and restrictions on counting provisional ballots mistakenly cast in the right county but in the wrong precinct.
According to the Justice Department, more than 70 percent of African-Americans who voted in 2008 and 2012 did so during the early voting period.
McCrory on Monday said the Justice Department’s lawsuit was “without merit.” He described the action as a political move by the Obama administration and cited a video showing the president presenting an ID card to vote in Chicago.
“I believe if showing a voter ID is good enough and fair enough for our own president in Illinois, it’s good enough for the people in North Carolina,” he said. “I think it is obviously influenced by national politics, since the Justice Department ignores similar laws in other blue states.”
The state has hired an outside law firm to fight the lawsuit.
The suit against North Carolina follows similar lawsuits filed by the Justice Department against the state of Texas that challenges congressional and legislative redistricting maps that, prosecutors say, intentionally discriminated against Latino and African-American citizens. Another complaint challenges Texas’ photo-identification requirement as racially discriminatory.
Legal experts see a complicated case ahead, one likely to by colored by politics. Democrats will argue the ruling demonstrates how another Republican-led state legislature is trying to suppress minority voters. Republicans will counter that requiring a photo ID protects against voter fraud, and that several other states have similar requirements.
Spencer Overton, a professor at the George Washington University Law School, called the North Carolina law troubling, citing the disproportionate number of minority voters affected by restrictions on early voting. But the Justice Department’s case faces obstacles, he said.
“Perhaps the most significant problem is that Section 2 has generally been used to challenge discriminatory redistricting and it’s not well established as a tool to fight hurdles that disproportionately make voting harder for voters of color,” he said.
Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said North Carolina never would have been able to get its new voting rights law passed six months ago under the earlier preclearance requirements, prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder.
“The onus was on North Carolina,” Greenbaum said. “It’s now on the Department of Justice.”
It’s not just a voter ID lawsuit, it’s about additional changes, including limited early voting that had a cumulative effect of reducing the vote, said Charlotte-based U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins. She added that it’s not solely about the ID, but about limiting the types of ID that can be shown. But she added that it can be difficult for people in some areas of North Carolina to get a DMV-issued ID. There are places where the DMV is open only one day a month or does not have weekend or nighttime hours.
“At the end of the day what this law does is break a system that was working well,” she said.
The case thrusts the Tarheel State back into the middle of civil rights law, which the federal government and the Supreme Court has struggled to clarify. It was in North Carolina where, in 1981, the Supreme Court took up the case, Thornburg v. Gingles, challenging a 1981 redistricting plan. The unanimous court found that “the legacy of official discrimination . . . acted in concert with the multimember districting scheme to impair the ability of . . . cohesive groups of black voters to participate equally in the political process and to elect candidates of their choice.”
And in 1993, the Supreme Court took up the case of Ruth Shaw, who fought a congressional redistricting plan that she felt would limit the power of African-Americans. The court stopped short of overturning the North Carolina plan, but Justice Sandra Day O’Connor described the redistricting as “political apartheid.”
“North Carolina has been in the middle of some of the most potent court cases in modern history about voting in redistricting,” said Ferrel Guillory, a political analyst at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
The News & Observer’s John Frank contributed to this report.
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