Judge’s Decision May Keep North Carolina Voters From the Polls

A lawsuit challenging controversial new voting restrictions might not be settled in time for the midterms in November. Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty

Will African-Americans be able to vote in North Carolina’s midterm elections?

For many the answer is, “Maybe not.”

That’s because a federal court won’t decide whether North Carolina’s new, Republican-backed voting law changes, billed by civil libertarians as “voter suppression,” are unconstitutional before 2015 – meaning it would be too late for tens of thousands of eligible voters, many of whom are African-American, to cast their ballots in the 2014 elections.

The changes, set to go into effect in January, shave off a week from the early voting period, cut voter registration efforts in high school civics classes and make it easier for partisans to serve as “poll watchers,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union and reports.

The changes also put a stop to same-day voter registration. And, starting in 2016, voters must present state-issued photo ID at the polls. Voters won’t be permitted “to cast provisional ballots for upper-ticket races like the U.S. Senate if they show up at the wrong polling place or get in the wrong precinct line to vote,” according to analysis from the ACLU.

These sweeping measures are making waves far outside of the state. There are fears North Carolina is a bellwether for other states as many state legislators across the country, eager to implement or make similar changes, look to see whether the legislation holds up in court. 

One tally indicates that seven states in addition to North Carolina have passed voting restrictions during the 2013 legislative session, including Arkansas, Indiana, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Tennessee and Virginia. 

The movement for voting restrictions nationwide has taken off since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this summer that nine states, mostly in the South, no longer needed federal approval before changing election laws put in place in the 1960s to ensure they complied with federal Civil Rights legislation.

Though the ACLU and allied groups, including the U.S. Department of Justice, filed a lawsuit against the bill in August, U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Joi Peake decided Thursday that the challenges are “too complicated to be resolved before next year's elections,” the Associated Press reports.

If this law is later declared unconstitutional or in violation of federal law, there’s no way to undo the election,” Dale Ho, who directs ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, told Newsweek. “The people who will have lost their right to vote will have lost it and they have no way to get it back.”

In an e-mail to Newsweek, North Carolina’s Republican governor, Pat McCrory, defended the law, saying, “It’s ironic that a photo ID was required to gain entry for today’s hearing in a Federal Court Building. This presents the strongest case yet that requiring a photo ID to vote is common sense, even for Washington lawyers and liberal activists -- and this argument will be upheld regardless of the trial date.”

North Carolina Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis, both adamant backers of the law, expressed similar sentiments in a joint press statement, saying the changes actually protects the right to vote.

“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,” they wrote.  

“The law was designed to improve consistency, clarity and uniformity at the polls and it brings 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 U.S. and North Carolina Constitutions.”

Ho counters that the only thing the law actually does is prevent access -- and the numbers appear to back him up.

Same-day voting registration, for example, accounted for about 152,000 ballots during the 2012 elections. And nearly half of North Carolinians -- 2.5 million -- voted early. Some 138,000 North Carolinians didn’t have state-issued IDs and 7,000 voted out of their precincts -- both forbidden under the new legislation.

These measures disproportionately impact African-Americans: Although they comprise 23 percent of North Carolina’s registered voters, African-Americans accounted for about a third of early voters and persons without ID, and 41 percent of same-day registrants, The Nation noted.

In practice, the new state law would also bar these voters from participating in key state and federal contests. The AP notes that 2014’s ballot is “the first state legislative race held since the Republican-dominated General Assembly approved a sweeping conservative agenda” – including a law that might shutter all of North Carolina’s abortion clinics.

North Carolina has become a cauldron for hotly contested politics in next year’s elections in other ways, too. Democrat Kay Hagan must defend her Senate seat, and the state’s 13 Congressional districts are also up for grabs. Since many of the voting restrictions disproportionately affect Democrat-leaning minorities, the change in the law favors the Republicans.

Nevertheless, one activist interviewed by Newsweek was optimistic: The judge did hint that the plaintiffs could argue for an injunction this summer – which, if enacted, could prevent part or all of the law from going into place before the midterms next November.