By Leland Ware
Louis L. Redding Chair and
Professor for the Study of
Law and Public Policy
University of Delaware
On July 29, 2016, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down North Carolina’s blatant efforts to suppress African American votes. The case began in 2013, after the Supreme Court issued the decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which overturned key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. On the day after Shelby was decided, North Carolina’s Republican-dominated the legislature announced an intention to enact “omnibus” election law. Before proceeding, however, the legislature obtained detailed data that examined, by race, a number of voting practices.
Relying on this data, the General Assembly enacted legislation restricting voting options favored by African Americans. The laws shortened an early voting period by a full week, eliminated same-day registration, prohibited the counting of ballots cast out of precinct, eliminated a preregistration program for 16-and 17-year olds, and implemented a strict photo ID requirement. Many observers called the legislation “the worst voter suppression law in the nation.”
A number of organizations filed suit contending that the legislation was motivated by a discriminatory intent in violation of § 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. They also contended that the laws had a discriminatory effect in violation of § 2 of the Voting Rights Act and burdened the right to vote in contravention of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Despite the mountain of evidence of discrimination that was presented, the trial court rejected the claims finding that the plaintiffs had “failed to show that such disparities will have materially adverse effects on the ability of minority voters to cast a ballot and effectively exercise the electoral franchise.”
The Fourth Circuit reversed. It concluded that the General Assembly enacted the “most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow.” The record showed that the laws were not, as the state contended, the product of the back-and-forth of routine partisan struggle. In fact, the General Assembly enacted the changes in the immediate aftermath of unprecedented African American voter participation in a state with a troubled racial history and racially polarized voting. The Court stated:
In response to claims that intentional racial discrimination animated its action, the State offered only meager justifications. Although the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision, they constitute inapt remedies for the problems assuredly justifying them and, in fact, impose cures for problems that did not exist. Thus the asserted justifications cannot and do not conceal the State’s true motivation.
The Court found that the totality of the circumstances compelled a finding of intentional discrimination. These circumstances included North Carolina’s history of voting discrimination, the dramatic upswing in African American voting, the legislature’s knowledge that African Americans’ voting translated into support for democratic candidates. Additional considerations were the elimination of tools African Americans used to vote and the imposition of new barriers to voting. This evidence showed that the General Assembly used the new voting laws to preserve the Republican majority and did so by targeting black voters.
North Carolina NAACP v. McCrory is a significant win for Civil Rights advocates. It will have an impact on the 2016 presidential election. The radical right wing has developed an array of subtle and overt methods to suppress voter registration and turnout. Voter suppression today is achieved through regulatory, legislative and administrative means, resulting in modern day equivalents to poll taxes and literacy tests that kept Black voters from the ballot box in the Jim Crow era. The laws struck down in North Carolina NAACP v. McCrory are examples of the flagrant institutional racism that continues to haunt us.