The North Carolina legislature voted Thursday to approve the most restrictive voter suppression measures in the country, making it the first state to pass new laws after the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. But the move comes the same day that the Department of Justice announced plans to use other means to protect voting rights.
As the Center for Media and Democracy has reported, the North Carolina bill will not only enact strict voter ID requirements that threaten to disenfranchise 318,000 registered voters, but also authorizes voter vigilantes, ends election day registration (used by 155,000 voters last November), cuts early voting (used by 56% of the electorate), make it harder to register, and even creates paranoid protections against "zombie voters." It also raises campaign contribution limits and kills public financing for judicial elections.
The provisions were introduced on Tuesday, during the final week of the legislative session, and sailed through the Republican-controlled legislature two days later, with the state Senate voting 33-14 and the House 73-41 in favor of the bill.
New Voter Suppression in Wake of Shelby County
North Carolina was one of several states that under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act had required pre-clearance from the federal government before it could make changes to voting laws or procedures. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder struck down the formula used to determine which states are subject to Section 5, effectively rendering the pre-clearance provision moot -- and freeing the North Carolina legislature to enact voter restrictions without receiving the federal government's prior approval.
North Carolina was the first state to enact new legislation in the wake of Shelby County, but other states have begun enforcing voting restrictions that had previously been blocked by Section 5. Florida, for example, has resumed a voter purge that threatens to kick thousands of eligible voters -- particularly Latinos -- off the rolls.
Just hours after the Shelby County decision was issued in June, Texas announced it would begin enforcing the state's ALEC-inspired voter ID law, which could disenfranchise up to 800,000 registered voters but had been blocked by a federal court under Section 5. The state's problematic redistricting map would also take effect, which had previously been blocked by a federal court due to its discriminatory impact.
DOJ Announces Plans to Protect Voting Rights
But on Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice will seek to use a provision of the Voting Rights Act not affected by the Supreme Court decision, Section 3, to require that Texas remain subject to Section 5 and get pre-clearance before implementing the redistricting map.
"This is the department's first action to protect voting rights" following the Shelby County decision, Holder said in a speech to the National Urban League, "but it will not be our last."
Under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act, a state or political subdivision can be required to get pre-clearance if a court finds evidence of intentional discrimination, which can be a difficult legal standard to satisfy. But the DOJ might meet it for redistricting maps in Texas, where a court considering last year's Section 5 challenge found that the boundaries were "enacted with a discriminatory purpose," diluting the voting rights of black and Latino voters and depriving majority-minority districts of vital economic resources.
The Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) had already been seeking "bail-in" for Texas under Section 3, and the DOJ filed a statement of interest in the case asserting that MALDEF's bail-in request should be granted.
The DOJ could also bring similar action against Texas over its voter ID law, which had been blocked under Section 5, but took effect after the Shelby County decision.
Holder announced the DOJ's Section 3 strategy just hours before the North Carolina legislature approved its voter suppression measures -- which might preview potential action against that legislation, if civil rights groups or the department can show discriminatory intent.
Use of Section 3 Important, but Is Weak Substitute for Congressional Action
Section 3 can provide a check on the worst excesses of voter suppression, but experts say it is no substitute for a broader legislative coverage formula requiring pre-clearance for certain jurisdictions.
"This is a clunky way to cover only a subset of jurisdictions found to be intentionally discriminating," said Rick Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California, Irvine. Still, he says, the move is a "huge deal showing that the department is going to be aggressive in seeking to resurrect what it can of the old preclearance regime."
Congress has held hearings on developing a new formula that would determine which jurisdictions are subject to pre-clearance, but there is little chance of a bill passing anytime soon.
"Even as Congress considers updates to the Voting Rights Act in light of the court's ruling," Holder said, "we plan, in the meantime, to fully utilize the law's remaining sections to ensure that the voting rights of all American citizens are protected."