In the summer of 2013, the North Carolina legislature passed a bill containing a strict voter identification law along with a number of other provisions that made it far more difficult for many citizens to vote. Outraged voters and local civil rights activists took the law to court, challenging its legality under the Voting Rights Act. Nearly three years since the law was first put into effect, this week Judge Thomas D. Schroeder of the Federal District Court in Winston-Salem, NC, upheld the provisions contained in the bill, finding it within “the mainstream of other states.”
The result of his decision means that in North Carolina it is no longer possible to register and vote on the same day, nor to cast one’s ballot outside of one’s home precinct. The early-voting period has been reduced by seven days, minors can no longer preregister before they turn 18, and voters must submit approved photo ID or affidavits in order to cast their ballots. Yet despite North Carolina’s voting law resembling laws of many other states such as Florida and Alabama, civil rights activists in the state worry that the law disproportionately targets minority voters.
Two of these measures in particular, the same-day registration and the provision for voting outside of one’s home precinct, are utilized primarily by African-American voters in North Carolina, as well as by other minorities, seniors, and students. By eliminating these opportunities, critics like Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, claim the state’s conservative government is using “regressive and discriminatory voter suppression tactics” to shift the balance of power away from minority voters.
Although many lawmakers and politicians like North Carolina’s Gov. Pat McCrory argue that “requiring a photo ID in order to vote is not only common sense, it’s constitutional,” more than one in 10 Americans lack any of the required forms of voter ID. Voters of color are much more likely to lack the proper forms of ID than white voters, with research commissioned by the ACLU in recent years finding that white voters in Wisconsin were twice as likely to possess a valid photo ID compared to black and Latino voters.
A similar law in Texas requires one of seven forms of state or federally-issued photo ID: a driver’s license, a personal ID card issued by the state, a concealed handgun license, a military ID, a citizenship certificate, or a passport. The ID must have a valid expiration date and the name it displays must exactly match the name on the voter rolls.
Many politicians seem to assume that every citizen possesses at least one of these forms of ID, yet most of these forms are too costly to be worth their acquisition. A military ID or citizenship certificate can only be acquired by a relatively small percentage of the population who have served in the military or naturalized as adult citizens. A handgun license is useless to anyone who does not want or cannot afford a firearm, while a driver’s license is equally useless to someone who cannot afford a car. A passport is expensive to obtain, and also useless if one lacks the resources for international vacations. The remaining option, a state-issued ID, is free of charge, though it requires an original birth certificate, which itself costs money to obtain. The result of these requirements can be clearly seen in a study by the Government Accountability Office: after Tennessee and Kansas passed voter ID laws in 2012, voter turnout dropped noticeably in both states among young people and African-Americans.
While it’s clear that these voter ID laws have a disproportionately negative impact on minorities and young voters, Judge Schroeder was not wrong in his opinion that North Carolina’s laws were nothing new or extraordinary. 33 states now enforce voter ID laws, with most of the exceptions clustered in the Northeast, Midwest, and Pacific Coast. The argument typically made in favor of these laws is a worry about voting fraud, despite the fact that the majority of fraudulent voting occurs in absentee ballots, and the laws only make provisions for voting done in person. When you consider the added provisions for the restriction of registration time and polling location, it becomes only too evident what a flimsy excuse voter fraud represents.
Though primarily conservative states pass voter identification laws, it was conservative U.S. circuit judge Richard Posner who wrote, “there is only one motivation for imposing burdens on voting that are ostensibly designed to discourage voter-impersonation fraud…and that is to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burdens.”
Judge Schroeder, however, would disagree. According to him, “in North Carolina’s recent history…there is little official discrimination to consider.” Apparently racism is a thing of the past, and if voter identification laws disproportionately affect people of color, it’s “officially” a coincidence.