Opinion: A Historic Ruling on Voter ID

Federal court decision minces no words: NCGA tried to keep black people from voting
Maryland State Archives
Motz

There’s no need to amplify the ruling. These sentences speak loudly all by themselves. (Emphasis mine.)

In holding that the legislature did not enact the challenged provisions with discriminatory intent, the court seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees. This failure of perspective led the court to ignore critical facts bearing on legislative intent, including the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina …

After years of preclearance and expansion of voting access, by 2013 African American registration and turnout rates had finally reached near-parity with white registration and turnout rates. African Americans were poised to act as a major electoral force. But, on the day after the Supreme Court issued Shelby County v. Holder … eliminating preclearance obligations, a leader of the party that newly dominated the legislature (and the party that rarely enjoyed African American support) announced an intention to enact what he characterized as an “omnibus” election law. Before enacting that law, the legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices. Upon receipt of the race data, the General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration in five different ways, all of which disproportionately affected African Americans

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 assertedly 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 … Faced with this record, we can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent

Indeed, neither this legislature—nor, as far as we can tell, any other legislature in the Country—has ever done so much, so fast, to restrict access to the franchise …

Thus, whether the General Assembly knew the exact numbers, it certainly knew that African American voters were highly likely, and that white voters were unlikely, to vote for Democrats. And it knew that, in recent years, African Americans had begun registering and voting in unprecedented numbers. Indeed, much of the recent success of Democratic candidates in North Carolina resulted from African American voters overcoming historical barriers and making their voices heard to a degree unmatched in modern history …

Thus, in what comes as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times, the State’s very justification for a challenged statute hinges explicitly on race—specifically its concern that African Americans, who had overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, had too much access to the franchise

The only clear factor linking these various “reforms” is their impact on African American voters. The record thus makes obvious that the “problem” the majority in the General Assembly sought to remedy was emerging support for the minority party. Identifying and restricting the ways African Americans vote was an easy and effective way to do so.

We cannot ignore the record evidence that, because of race, the legislature enacted one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history.

Practically, this means that the photo ID, early voting, pre- and same-day registration, and out-of-precinct voting restrictions that the law required will not apply to the general election in November. It’s a presidential election year, so that’s a big, big deal.

But Judge Diana Gribbon Motz’s ruling was aiming for something even higher, I think, than a mere repair to a malfunctioning machine. In some of the strongest language I’ve ever seen in a court ruling, she over and over again told the North Carolina General Assembly that in 2013, quickly, deliberately, and precisely, it devised and passed a law to keep as many black people as possible from exercising their right to vote in order to maintain political power in an American state.

The ramifications of this aren’t just legal and electoral, in North Carolina and in the 22 states that have restricted voting rights since 2010. They’re historic.

 
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