Republicans vs. Democracy in North Carolina

It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of the voting bill currently hurtling through the North Carolina legislature. What the Republican-dominated body calls a “Voter Protection” bill has a laundry list of provisions, almost all of which make voting harder for the general population and disproportionately hard for voters of color, young voters, or low-income people. “The types of provisions are not unheard of,” says Denise Lieberman, senior council for the voting rights advocacy group the Advancement Project. “What’s unheard of is doing all them all at once.” Lieberman calls the measure “the most broad-sweeping assault on voting rights in the country.” She’s not exaggerating.

Simply put, the law would turn the state with the South’s most progressive voting laws, and the region’s highest turnout in the last two presidential elections, into a state with perhaps the most restrictive voting laws in the nation. In doing so, it could also provide a national model for erecting obstacles to voting.

House Bill 589 arrived in the state senate three months ago as a simple voter ID bill. It was only this week, at the last minute before the legislature moves toward adjournment, that Republican senators transformed the measure into something far more drastic. HB 589 has metastasized into an “omnibus bill” of a dizzying scope. In addition to limiting the types of ID voters would be allowed to use at the polls, the bill also ends same-day registration—in which you can register and vote in one visit—and cuts the state’s 17-day early voting period by one full week. It prohibits paid voter registration drives (which tend to register more poor and nonwhite voters) and eliminates provisional voting if someone comes to the wrong precinct to cast a ballot. The list of restrictive measures goes on and on. North Carolina is one of the few states that encourages high-schoolers to pre-register, so they can begin participating as soon as they turn 18—not anymore, under this bill. Any registered voter would be able to challenge the eligibility of another at the polls. Perhaps most alarmingly, polling stations would no longer stay open to accommodate long lines on election nights. Those still in line when the closing time came might not be able to vote.

“Voter suppression” may be an overused term on the left, but in this case, it’s hard to imagine what else to call a bill with so many provisions designed to create barriers to the ballot box. There’s no secret why the senate waited to act on the original house bill. As in several other Southern states, GOP lawmakers wanted to see how the Supreme Court would rule on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required that states and counties with histories of voter discrimination would have to get permission from the Justice Department before changing election law. In North Carolina, 40 counties fell under this “preclearance” requirement. Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that the method for deciding which states and counties were required was unfair, and suddenly, North Carolina no longer had to seek pre-approval to make voting more difficult for particular groups of citizens.

Republican lawmakers, who have spent the last six months converting the first GOP supermajorities in North Carolina history into extreme and controversial far right legislation on a wide range of issues, are now seeing just how far they can take things when it comes to voting.  All eyes are on the state—and among voting-rights advocates like Lieberman, there’s tremendous concern that the legislature’s approach will inspire copycats in other states.

But given North Carolina’s voting history, the measure is particularly sad. “It’s not like they’re doing these measures in the context of a state that has decades of high turnout,” says Bob Hall, the director of Democracy North Carolina, a voter education and participation group. “We don’t have a deep tradition of voter participation. We just started it. We just got it going and they’re trying to undercut it.”

Like most Southern states, North Carolina traditionally suffered from dismal voter turnout, ranking among the bottom 15 states in election after election. A coalition of civic groups, lead by the state NAACP president, the Reverend William Barber, worked for years to get the legislature to address the problem. In 2000, early voting was first instituted, and in 2007, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers passed a set of measures that increased the early-voting period to 17 days and offered citizens the option of registering and voting on the same day. There were also long-term investments, like pre-registering 16- and 17-year olds. State Representative Danny McComas, one of the Republicans who supported the bill, proclaimed, “It’s a sacred right that we have to vote.”

The changes bore fruit almost immediately. In 2008, with help from the historic nature of Barack Obama’s candidacy and his campaign’s aggressive mobilization effort, North Carolina leapt into the top 15 states for voter turnout. Just how much early voting and liberalized registration can be credited for the increase isn’t certain, but what is clear is that Obama organizers made extra days at the polls an essential part of their strategy to mobilize voters. For the first time since 1976, the state went Democratic in a presidential contest. Although Obama narrowly lost the state in 2012, turnout continued to be impressive, including an 80-percent participation rate among black voters, the second highest in the country.


Republicans clearly want to reverse North Carolina’s trend toward higher participation. But while their bill would be the most restrictive in the country, that doesn’t mean their success in stopping people from voting is assured. The idea, of course, is that the new rules would disadvantage Democrats at the polls, because they disproportionately impact groups that lean Democratic: minorities, women, young people, and low-income voters. According to the state’s own research, black North Carolinians are more likely to lack IDs than their white counterparts; they’re also likelier to take advantage of early voting.

Without a significant organizing force on the left, these measures could be devastating. But North Carolina has the South’s heartiest progressive movement—the one that pushed its enlightened voting laws in the first place, and the one that’s organized Moral Mondays protests at the state capitol since April, with thousands protesting and hundreds volunteering to be arrested in civil disobedience. As Rick Hasen, University of California-Irvine law professor and author of The Voting Wars, wrote on Wednesday at the Daily Beast, we’ve already seen versions of this dynamic play out in other states—and almost always, there’s been a backlash that has largely foiled the GOP’s intentions. Republicans in several states passed voting restrictions prior to 2012, but voters of color turned out as strongly as they had in 2008. Progressive organizers in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania used the attempts to cut down early voting and implement voter ID laws as part of their organizing effort. Those voters targeted by these tactics got fired up rather than intimidated. Meanwhile, the courts also responded in a big way. When civil rights groups brought suits against the state laws, courts knocked down a number of new voting restrictions. In Ohio, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals forced the state to keep its early voting days; in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, state courts prevented voter ID laws from going into effect last November.

The North Carolina bill is especially challenging for voting rights activists, however, because it’s so multi-faceted. Individually, each of the provisions might only have a marginal impact on turnout, but put them together and advocates like Lieberman fear a “massive chilling effect” on voting.

Much of the bill will surely be challenged in court, but there are a lot of provisions to challenge. Similarly, the state’s well-organized progressives will use these elections tactics as a rallying cry. But the coalition will have to allocate resources between fighting in court and educating voters on the tons of new changes to voting in the state. Each prospective voter may need to know different things: how to get a proper ID, what days they can go to the polls, what to do when someone challenges their vote.

Barber, the leader of the coalition, is confident that between the courtroom and voter outrage, the laws will fail. “The more you try to take people’s liberties, the more people stand up,” he says.

It will help progressives that with such a sweeping bill, they won’t be the only North Carolinians who are outraged by it. Republicans will likely alienate many more than just the Democratic voters they’re targeting, because the things they’re repealing, like early voting days or same-day registration, make elections run better—and conservatives don’t like chaotic elections any better than anyone else.

In fact, many of the “liberal” election measures Republicans want to roll back—in North Carolina and elsewhere—began as bipartisan efforts. Republican attempts to roll back early voting are particularly ironic. It was actually lawmakers in conservative Texas who, in 1985, proposed that voters be allowed to cast ballots before Election Day. The initiative wasn’t controversial, let alone partisan; when it passed by overwhelming margins, newspapers barely considered the bill news. The idea was to make voting easier and, some hoped, increase turnout among those with inflexible work and child-care schedules who have trouble making it to the polls on Election Day.

Since Texas launched its program, 32 states, mostly in the South, Midwest, and West, have adopted similar measures, almost always with bipartisan support. Some states offer nearly a month of early voting, while others offer only a week. The practice has boosted turnout in some states by 2 percent to 4 percent, and it’s proved extremely popular with people who were already voting. Election officials have found that it also offers another benefit: Giving citizens more time to make their way to a polling place not only allows more flexibility, it decreases Election Day chaos.

Until the 2008 presidential election, Democrats and Republicans across the country were equally inclined to vote in person ahead of Election Day. The Obama campaign’s aggressive promotion of early voting changed that; in 2008 and 2012, it was used disproportionately by African Americans. That has triggered Republican suspicions and turned a reform endorsed by both conservatives and liberals into an object of GOP ire.

Cutting early voting certainly won’t do what Republican lawmakers claim: prevent voter fraud (which is practically nonexistent in the first place). The most experienced elections staff usually man the stations during early voting—providing, if anything, more security. Most election officials like having more days. The extended time cuts down on lines and confusion, with fewer people having to cast provisional ballots because of registration problems.

If the bill goes into effect for the 2014 mid-terms, conservatives and liberals alike will find themselves waiting in longer lines, with more administrative debacles. People are bound to get upset about it. In North Carolina, 57 percent of all voters cast ballots early in 2012. Polling shows only 23 percent of state residents support shortening the voting period.

Lawsuits are inevitable at both the state and federal level. While nothing is certain until the bill passes, civil rights lawyers will likely bring different types of cases—arguing the bill violates the ban on voting discrimination in the Voting Rights Act, arguing it violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection, and arguing it violates North Carolina’s state constitution, which guarantees that “all elections be free” and that “Every person born in the United States and every person who has been naturalized, 18 years of age, and possessing the qualifications set out in this Article, shall be entitled to vote at any election by the people of the State, except as herein otherwise provided.”

Hasen says the state will find it particularly difficult to defend policies like the one to close polling places down even as people wait in line. “That would be a strong signal to courts that this is a provision designed to make it harder to vote,” he says.

Even if the North Carolina law (or parts of it) can withstand lawsuits, public outcry has forced Republicans to back down in other states when they’ve suppressed votes and made the process messier. Just ask Florida. Republican lawmakers in 2012 were determined to make voting more difficult and passed a slew of measures, including a decrease in early-voting days. The November election was a mess of long lines and addled officials. Obama still won, but Republican legislators and Governor Rick Scott—who staunchly supported the decrease and refused to extend early-voting hours in the face of extraordinary lines—had to face public outrage over their ill-conceived changes. When they reconvened in January, lawmakers immediately started restoring the reforms they’d taken away. Early-voting days are mostly back in place in Florida, and new, more convenient polling places will be opened. Not exactly the outcome Republicans had in mind.


"Each prospective voter may need to know different things: how to get a proper ID, what days they can go to the polls, what to do when someone challenges their vote." Anyone, please, leave the hyperbole out, and answer the straightforward question of whether an individual that will not complete the simple tasks listed above will take the time to have a clue about what they are voting for?

(BTW, I think it was Stossel that had a column a few years ago putting forth the notion that it is our civic duty NOT to vote when we don’t bother to learn about the candidates and issues we are voting on. It was an interesting counter to the notion that it is our “duty to vote” we have heard since forever)

As it turns out, whether an individual "will take the time to have a clue" (... and in whose judgment - YOURS???) is utterly irrelevant. That's not the constitutional criterion.

And to express a notion of civic duty as pertains certain classes of people is much different than passing laws that shred their constitutional rights as citizens.

Thank you, Attorney General Holder, for taking Texas to court today. He says they will continue to look at all states and voting rights. Shameful that the Supreme Court gave the nod to these extremists. They are shutting down many different Constitutional rights. Taken as a package in all the red states, it is revolutionary against American values and ethics. Where is the national media? Oops. They are either corporate or red radical and support the domination of Republicans. They are the GOP/NRA/ALEC/Southern cartel that is very successful in destroying what we thought was a democratic nation. Their sheeple point to Obama as if he can counter the Supreme Court, unlimited billionaire money thanks to the court and the corruption of the political system.

Too bad he will be in prison before he has a chance to do anything about it.

So, basically, those dastardly Republicans in North Carolina are bringing their voting laws up to the international standards as practiced in European democracies.

I'm SHOCKED, I tell you, SHOCKED! :-)

I see absolutely no relationship to European democracies. In Switzerland, voting is compulsory, on weekends, and possible via internet. Every person living in the country (both Swiss nationals and foreigners) must register with their municipality within two weeks of moving there, so there is no need to even register to vote. That is the opposite of anything going on in NC.

Those dastardly Republicans are not bringing their laws UP to international standards, and the European democracies are not an infallible model. The Common Market is particularly unrepresentative. When they can vote, the turnout is fairly good. As Chief Justice John Roberts has observed, our vote is the basis of all other freedoms. Anything that discourages voting or prevents a person from voting -- especially if a legitimate voter can be turned away at the polls -- should be deeply offensive to any patriot. You are entirely correct to be shocked that a major party could be so unAmerican and hostile to everything our country stands for.

High voter turnout is a sign the government is doing a bad job. In a democracy, that government which governs best has the lowest voter interest in changing it.

Three-quarters of Americans want voter ID laws. The Supreme Court has already ruled that requiring identification is perfectly lawful. Continuing to rant that ID, which anyone who conducts business in America - including with the government - is already required to carry, is an attack on democracy, just makes you sound foolish.

A national ID or internal passports are widely regarded as tools for government control. This is why your Social Security number is "not to be used for identification." Of course this is just one way Republicans have tried to attack such Democratic social enterprises and you are entirely correct: It does make them look foolish.

All the tricks to fix the vote that go well beyond a simple ID (that was never simple for any but Republicans) were used in all the red states, taken to court in all the red states and reversed mostly right before the 2012 election. Now the DOJ will review all states with new voting laws which is much better than the usual southern states who immediately put in place Jim Crow after the Republican gang of 5 on the Supreme Court gave their approval. Had we not fought for Civil Rights in the 1960's we would not have had 50 years of democracy. Fixing the vote is not democratic and violates the Constitution.

If you cannot manage to get an ID, register before the election, and know when the election actually takes place - then you are not showing the requisite competence to vote.
If you are a true American then you would want to have honest and fair elections - where only those eligible vote - and they only vote once. The Democrat party has a long sordid history of vote fraud. It seems that longstanding tradition is alive and well. Creating chaos creates opportunities to cheat.

Sorry guys, there is no Constitutional right to commit vote fraud.

"The Democrat party ..."

Sorry guy, but in the USA there is no "Democrat party." That pretty much negates the rest of what you wrote.

If you are a true American then you would want unobstructed access to the ballot box for EVERY eligible voter - because that's what the Consitution says - and mechanisms such as North Carolina's which HAVE BEEN SHOWN to impede this would horrify you.

See, I can do it too.

Obviously some have not experienced Jim Crow first hand. Their ignorance is surprising.

Do I vote liberal for minority freedom, or conservative to maintain the status quo? I have voted as a democrat since I was 18 years old, I am now 63. Any ideal that promote the legitimacy of gay rights cannot be tolerated . l know that the suppression of the voting rights are not because of conservatives genuine in their belief in "God and country", but are there any other political parties out there that believe in the sanctity of mankind being create male and female?
If equality mean to go against nature itself,and to teach our future to ignore, what use to be self-evident: male and female, then I rather be a slave but free in my soul, than free and my soul confronted with this Obamanation that is being imposed upon this generation.
If the conservatives can conserve the greatest gift that God gave to mankind, "being created in his own image, then I will not mind living on the other side of the fence. After all, the only one who has the right to vote is God; He has no respect of persons, as long as the persons obey his laws. I vote for the benevolent dictator. Down with capitalist democracy!

Yes, there are at least two political parties out there that are perfectly aligned to your views. United Russia is one, and another is the Alliance of Builders of Islamic Iran. Good luck to you.

There are VERY angry voters in North Carolina over ALL of this nonsense...I'm one of 'em.

Art Pope & his "Koch-Brothers Cossacks", not to mention "Governor Yuppie", will find out just how angry many of us are on Election Day.

In case any of you are wondering, I'm a registered Independent voter.

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(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)