Courts & the Law, News

Why strict voting laws like North Carolina’s are discriminatory: An explainer

Yesterday, Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein took steps to withdraw the state’s request for the U.S. Supreme Court to review the state’s controversial 2013 voting law that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down last July. For those not following the matter closely, here is a brief layperson’s explanation/reminder of what the case is about and why Cooper and Stein acted as they did.

As many will recall, in 2013, the General Assembly passed a bill that made it harder for North Carolinians to vote by imposing strict voter ID requirements and other changes. Critics dubbed it the “Monster Voting Law” and/or the “voter suppression law.” After a series of judicial proceedings, the federal Court of Appeals struck it down after finding that it was discriminatory, sought to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision” and limit access to the polls.

Former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and the legislature at the time disagreed with the ruling and filed a court document asking the U.S. Supreme Court to step in and review the case and reinstate the law.

Cooper and Stein are now taking steps to reverse that request, in the hope that the law will remain invalidated.

Now, there are some very complicated legal arguments about whether Cooper and Stein can take back the state’s request for review, but that is not what this blog post is about. Instead, this post is an attempt to respond to the large number of people who have asked in recent days how strict voter laws are discriminatory and why they cause such concern for good government advocates.

The Atlantic best addressed this in an article earlier this month about a new study from researchers Zoltan Hajnal, Nazita Lajevardi, and Lindsay Nielson at the University of California, San Diego. The study is one of the first to analyze certified votes across all states after the implementation of voter laws in multiple elections.

Specifically, they found “that strict photo identification laws have a differentially negative impact on the turnout of Hispanics, Blacks, and mixed-race Americans in primaries and general elections.”

The article features a lengthy explanation about the researchers’ methodology but ultimately uses a Washington Post article that summed up the study’s findings to explain what it all means.

By instituting strict voter ID laws, states can alter the electorate and shift outcomes toward those on the right. Where these laws are enacted, the influence of Democrats and liberals wanes and the power of Republicans grows. Unsurprisingly, these strict ID laws are passed almost exclusively by Republican legislatures.

In keeping with the UCSD researchers’ findings, Bob Hall, Executive Director of Democracy North Carolina applauded Cooper and Stein for the move they made to protect voting rights and said the decision would help all North Carolina voters.

The decision will save taxpayers millions of dollars and save millions of voters from needless cuts to early voting and the elimination of safety-net protections (like same-day registration) that improve the elections system for everyone.

The Monster Law (H589) disproportionately hurt African Americans, other voters of color, and youth – but in raw numbers, it actually hurt more white voters, including those who backed the Republican legislators who passed it. For example, research by Democracy North Carolina shows that only one in three (35%) of the voters using same-day registration in 2016 were Democrats. Most were white Republicans and unaffiliated voters, and our research indicates that most of them supported Donald Trump and other Republican candidates.

Ironically, had Republicans prevailed in the US Court of Appeals, there would be no same-day registration in 2016 to help their candidates.

The message is clear: passing laws to make voting more difficult winds up hurting everyone, especially infrequent voters of all political persuasions who may not focus on the changing rules. Laws like H589 lead to an elitist voting system. The better path to achieve a representative democracy is to adopt laws that make the elections system fair, secure and more accessible for all citizens.

NC Policy Watch will be monitoring the Court in the days and weeks ahead as it processes the Cooper/Stein request. Check back frequently in this space for updates.

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