By Wendy Underhill
The Department of Justice announced on Sept. 30 that it is filing suit against North Carolina for its new elections law, enacted in July.
“In challenging this law, the Justice Department will present evidence of racially discriminatory effect resulting from these changes – based on the state’s own data,” said Attorney General Eric Holder, in a press release. He cites the new photo voter ID requirement; the reduction in the number of days for early voting; the elimination of the option to register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day during early voting; and how provisional ballots are handled when they are cast in the wrong precinct but within the right county.
In response, the bill’s sponsor, Representative Harry Warren, called the lawsuit “frivolous.” Specifically referring to the early voting hours, he said “It’s actually more equitable. What we’re doing is requiring all early voting precincts to be open uniformly and equally.” As for the photo voter ID provision, he points out that other states already have similar requirements, and have survived court challenges.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory added, “I think it’s obviously influenced by national politics, since the Justice Department ignores similar laws in other blue states throughout America.
The outcome of the case will be watched nationally.
In the meantime, the New York Times’ coverage of the new DOJ suit says, “Republican-controlled states have rushed to impose new limits on voting” since the Supreme Court’s June ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. (That’s the case that invalidated a portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the part that put some states and local jurisdictions under Section 5, which obligated them to have any changes to voting procedures “pre-cleared” by federal authorities before they could be implemented.)
If the “Gray Lady” is referring to the passage of new legislation such as North Carolina’s, it’s too early to say there’s a “rush.” We simply don’t know yet how the “formerly Section 5 states” will respond.
Here’s why. The Supreme Court ruling came on June 25, and at that point fewer than a dozen states were still in session; most states had adjourned for the year. And, among those still in session (California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) only North Carolina was covered by Section 5 in a significant way. Come 2014 legislative sessions, we’ll be able to report if there is a trend.
For more on North Carolina’s bill—including provisions besides those mentioned in this lawsuit and how it compares to Colorado’s major election overhaul bill this year—see NCSL’s elections newsletter, The Canvass.
Wendy Underhill is program manager of NCSL's elections team.