Helen Guthrie, 69, leaned against a tree in downtown Raleigh earlier this month, holding a sign that read “Respect Our Vote! Save Early Voting, Good for Democracy.” She smiled as throngs of ralliers of multiple generations and races marched past her in the annual “HKonJ” rally, organized by a coalition of social justice groups including the NAACP. A few police officers stood less than a block away from Guthrie, in front of their cars, largely unconcerned with the protesters who chanted, “Ready to go! Fired up!” as they strode by.
Guthrie was smiling mostly because she knows what this scene looked like some 50 years earlier, when she was a student at Bennett College, picketing Jim Crow laws as her Greensboro colleagues attempted to integrate lunch counters. Back then the cops weren’t innocently standing by.
“We had all types of threats of violence to keep us in line,” said Guthrie. “And then we had to worry about what was gonna happen when we got back home.”
Neither were the protests such a culture club of blended ethnicities in the beginning.
“We had other races there, but they were throwing bricks at us,” said Guthrie laughing.
She can laugh about it now, knowing that the work of her peers led to the passage of a stronger civil rights bill and the Voting Rights Act, protecting people of color form voter discrimination. And yet, here it is 2013, and people are out marching once again to protect voting rights.
In 2011, conservative state legislators in North Carolina passed a voter ID law. Gov. Beverly Purdue, a Democrat, vetoed that bill, citing the hundreds of thousands without ID who’d be impacted. Republicans wanted to override it, but didn’t have the numbers. This year, thanks to the 2012 elections, not only does North Carolina have a “super-majority” of Republicans in both legislative chambers, but it also has a Republican governor.
The state GOP has been vocal about putting a new voter ID bill forth, and newly elected Gov. Pat McRory campaigned on the issue. Since North Carolina is a jurisdiction covered by the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5, which gives the federal government authority to watch over certain jurisdictions’ voting laws, any voter ID bill McRory might sign into law would have to be precleared by the Justice Department or a federal court.
But today in the Supreme Court, that very section of the Voting Rights Act is being challenged by Shelby County, Ala., another covered jurisdiction. If the court strikes down Section 5, then North Carolinians lacking identification—the bulk of whom are black, elderly or not Republican—might face unnecessary burdens when voting next time around.
Perhaps it was with that in mind that Guthrie pushed off the tree, hoisted her sign and joined the marchers down to the state capitol building.
A Southern Case Study
In terms of politics, North Carolina tends to rain purple. President Obama carried the state in 2008 and then hosted his Democratic National Convention in Charlotte last year. But in 2012, it was the only so-called battleground state to swing Republican, with Mitt Romney carrying the state and local Republicans taking full control. Policy will be set this year by an ultra-red general assembly, with veto-proof majorities in the state House and Senate, and by Republican Gov. McRory.
There is one outlier in this trend: attorney general Roy Cooper is a Democrat. He helped former Gov. Perdue fight back a movement last year in which local governments tried to pass their own individual voter ID ordinances. He also filed an amicus brief for North Carolina in the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder case. But Cooper didn’t file on behalf of North Carolina to strike Section 5. He filed in defense of it.
The filing disagrees with Shelby County’s claims that Section 5 unfairly burdens Southern states like Alabama and North Carolina. “Those claims wrongly minimize the significant and measurable benefits Section 5 has produced in helping” states like North Carolina and Mississippi “move toward their goal of eliminating racial discrimination and inequities in voting,” reads the brief.
And yet his state, like Mississippi’s, might pass a voter ID bill that could have sweeping racially discriminatory effects. A study from Democracy-NC shows that while black North Carolinians make up 22 percent of active registered voters, they make up 31 percent of those without ID—158,060 of the over 500,000 total active registered. Elderly active registered voters without ID are 26 percent of those without ID, while an astounding two-thirds of all active women voters in the state lack ID. Despite losing the state, President Obama won its women voters with 51 percent of their vote.
Probably because of this, Republicans are playing sagacious in their approach to new voter ID legislation. Rep. David Lewis, chairman of the House Election Law Committee, said they would propose a “carefully crafted” voter ID law, with their eye on compliance with the Voting Rights Act.
This, in fact, is an example of how potent Section 5 is in protecting voting rights—its deterrent effect. With that oversight, legislators can’t afford to be reckless in drafting legislation, because they have to prove that racial electoral equity and inclusion won’t be corrupted.
Balance of Power
North Carolina already has some inequity built in. According to the Institute for Southern Studies, while 51 percent of North Carolina’s votes last year went to Democratic candidates, only a third of the state’s U.S. House districts are represented by the Democratic Party. This exceeds the mis-aligned South in general, in which 41 percent of voters chose Democrats last year, but in which only 29 percent of the U.S. House districts reflect that choice. This reflects the fact that black voters, who voted overwhelmingly Democrat, are clumped in densely black districts
So will African Americans who vote for Democrats be further misrepresented with a voter ID law in place? That depends on how tough Rep. Lewis and the state GOP make the law. With rightwing millionaire activists like Art Pope and the ultra-conservative policy incubator Civitas Institute behind them, it’s hard to envision a bill that will honor the Voting Rights Act.
Less restrictive bills that allow voters to identify themselves with things like utility bills and pay stubs have been precleared in Section 5 states like Virginia and South Carolina, with the feds ruling they don’t have a discriminatory effect. But the Justice Department has rejected more restrictive photo ID laws like the one passed in Texas, which wouldn’t allow a college’s photo ID.
Attorney General Cooper’s public information officer Noelle Talley said that a “voter ID law in North Carolina could take many forms so we wouldn’t know at this point if it would comport” with Section 5. Republicans haven’t yet officially introduced legislation.
Anita Earls, director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice based in Durham, also filed an amicus brief for Shelby v. Holder. In that brief, Earls, a former Justice Department civil rights attorney, noted that Southern states covered by Section 5 continue to have a higher prevalence of voting access barriers—voter ID, felony disenfranchisement and proof of citizenship laws—than other states.
Wrote Earls, “Across all varieties of institutional measures to restrict voting rights, states that are fully covered by Section 5 are more than twice as likely as non-covered states to adopt policies that make voting more difficult for citizens.”
North Carolina seems poised to help widen that gulf. At the HKonJ rally, Guthrie says she does “not know why they are trying to pass all this right now.” Laughing again, she reasons, “Maybe because we have a black president.”