Voters Still in Limbo after Federal Court Strikes Voter ID Law
Update (8-11-16): A major, state media outlet is reporting a federal court has struck down North Carolina's state House and Senate maps. According to WRAL-TV of Raleigh, the court ruled the maps were unconstitutional on the basis of race, but the 2016 election will go ahead as planned with the maps as they are.
Since the passing of a sweeping voting bill in 2013, North Carolina’s electoral process has been in a state of constant flux. A panel of federal court judges wrote the latest chapter of the state’s electoral saga last Friday when it decided, unanimously, that the law – which, in part, required a form of government identification to vote – was discriminatory and repealed it.
The court’s decision was also controversial, but at least one local, election official says confusion and frustration among voters and officials is bipartisan.
Chris Thomas has this.
It’s easy to miss Greene County, North Carolina. Its estimated population is just over 21,000. At a relatively slight 266 square miles, it’s the ninth smallest county in North Carolina.
“With us being a rural county, we have a lot of population that is focused on agriculture.”
That’s Steven Hines – director of the Greene County Board of Elections. He’s held that post for a year and he’s from neighboring Lenoir County.
“We do have some folks who used to work over at industries in Kinston – Dupont, that sort of thing. Our population of registered voters-wise, I can tell you, is around 11,000. So, we’re a relatively small county. But we do have somewhat of a diverse population.”
Over the past three years there have been tremendous changes in voting ID requirements, early voting schedules, congressional district maps, and primary elections. Mr. Hines said the cost has been nominal on the local level, but time spent training and re-training Election Day assistants has increased significantly this year.
Hines: We already met with them one time (for the General Election), and we’re scheduled to meet with them two more times before the general election.
CT: And is that abnormal or is that about what folks would expect?
Hines: That is abnormal. Normally, we would only have the two hour class prior to the general election
That’s not to mention the frustration he’s fielded from voters in the county.
“Regardless of the lawmakers who make the laws and the judges who interpret the laws and may change things, they’re not the ones that are actually at the polling place, facing the voter when that voter shows up. It’s the poll worker. And that poll worker is going to see a lot of frustration any time there’s a change. It doesn’t matter if it’s showing an ID or not showing an ID. If it’s a change, it’s going to be some frustration from the voters.
Mr. Hines summed the last 3 years in two words.
And as it stands now, much of that training might be for naught. Last Friday – July 29 – a three-judge panel for the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals scrapped North Carolina’s entire voting law overhaul, bringing everything back to where it was on August 11th, 2013 – the day before it was signed into law by Gov. Pat McCory.
East Carolina University Political Science Professor Carmine Scarvo explains the law in its original form was much more constricting.
“Soon after that, in response to the threat of lawsuits…the legislation changed the ruling somewhat and said ‘well, if you can’t produce a voter ID, you could produce one of a series of other kinds of documents to prove that you really were you.”
But that did not sway the court’s panel.
The unanimous decision, written by long time 4th Circuit judge, Diana Motz, was scathing – bring the state to task on its history of race based discrimination at the polls, including a perceived effort to do the same with its most recent voting law.
Dr. Scarvo said voting laws have to pass two tests – for intent and effect. The prior is more stringent and the state did not pass.
“The court found that the North Carolina law intended to reduce minority voting strength. Not simply that it had the effect of doing it, that the legislator, in passing the law, intended to discriminate against minorities.”
But, that’s not how Lashawna Humphrey, a black woman from New Bern saw things. I asked her how she felt when she heard the voter ID law had been struck because it was deemed discriminatory by federal judges.
“Kinda shocked. I don’t see how it was, but if that’s what they said.”
Ms. Humphrey said she’s been an active voter for the past two election cycles and was ready to show her ID at the polls come November. She said her top priority in public life is equality, and as far as she could see, the Voter ID requirement did just that.
“The voter ID law – it didn’t affect me. Like, it didn’t bother me because even in a ‘rural’ area we live in you have to have an ID at some point. I don’t see what the problem was showing it if it was required as long as everyone had to show it. As long as everybody (did) it, it should be no problem.”
Fairness is also important to Jacque Charwood of Jacksonville, also a registered voter. Ms. Charwood’s belief in the democratic process is why she thinks the 4th Circuit Court’s decision was a mistake.
“I don’t know exactly how you’re supposed to get through life without some sort of ID, you know, even to file for government assistance, you have to have an ID of some sort, so, you know, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to need to have an ID to vote.”
The court echoed the law’s opponents when it said it disproportionately affected large portions of the population – including people who are poor.
But, Charwood holds onto her opinion, even after experiencing poverty herself.
“I was a single parent with two children. I was on assistance, government assistance. My parents paid for my apartment and I had a broken down, almost didn’t make it from A to B car [laughter]…so I definitely understand. But I still think it’s extremely important to be able to show who you are and where you come from and make sure that your voice is always heard.”
Her biggest concern lays in the fairness of the election process. She worries the stakes are so high and upcoming races are so close that the desire to get an edge, by any means, may prove irresistible without stronger proofs against voter fraud.
“I don’t want to say people are dishonest, but people are dishonest [Laughter]. If they think they can get a one-up…a lot of people will.”
But, times have changed, Dr. Scarvo said, and ballot stuffing at the level seen in previous generations is almost impossible – even with same day voter registration and without proof of ID at the polls.
Voting, he says, is just different.
“Selling pseudoephedrine or something across the counter…there’s no idea that the pharmacist is going to discriminate against African-Americans or discriminate against young people or discriminate against poor people or anything else. But we know that this history is there, in voting. You know, it happened for hundreds of years.”
Furthermore, he said these laws do disproportionately impact major portions of eastern North Carolina’s electorate. The region is still, primarily, rural and getting out to the DMV can be especially difficult if it holds strange hours.
The state has 24 satellite office for driver’s licenses. They are in some of the state’s smallest and poorest counties – including Washington, Currituck, Perquimans, Pamlico, Jones, Hyde, and Greene counties. These offices are open only 10 days out of the year.
“The voter ID law has probably a bigger impact on eastern North Carolina than it does on the rest of the state because the four demographic groups that are most widely affected by this…are minorities, rural people, students, and poor people and, you know, minorities, rural people, and poor people – there’s a lot of overlap in those categories.”
The law’s ultimate fate is unknown. Its advocates have vowed to take the fight up to the Supreme Court, if necessary. Meanwhile, Steven Hines and his fellow election board directors know he and his voters are still in limbo. The future is, for the most part, out of their hands.
If you want to read excerpts from the 4th Circuit Court’s decision, go to our website, publicradioeast.org. You’ll also find a link to the full text and more on what you need to know before you go to the polls in November.
I’m Chris Thomas.
What you need to know:
-On July 29th, 2016, a three-judge panel repealed North Carolina's voter ID law. An injunction was signed by District Court
-Government officials, including Gov. Pat McCrory, said they would appeal, but it's unlikely another court, especially the U.S. Supreme Court, will hear that appeal until after the election.
-Voting laws are back to what they were before the the law passed in 2013
- Showing a form of identification is not required before voting
- Early voting will last 17 days instead of 10 days
- Same day registration has been fully restored
- Pre-registration for underage voters has restored
- Out of jurisdiction voting has been restored
A link to Judge Diana Motz's decision (from the North Carolina Board of Elections)
"We appreciate and commend the court on its thoroughness. The record evidence provides substantial support for many of its findings; indeed, many rest on uncontested facts. But, for some of its findings, we must conclude that the district court fundamentally erred. 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." (Regarding Judge Thomas Schroeder upholding the election law on April 25, 2016)
"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. “In essence,” as in League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perr (LULAC), 548 U.S. 399, 440 (2006), 'the State took away [minority voters’] opportunity because [they] were about to exercise it.'”
"...between 2000 and 2012, when the law provided for the voting mechanisms at issue here and did not require photo ID, African American voter registration swelled by 51.1%... (compared to an increase of 15.8% for white voters). African American turnout similarly surged, from 41.9% in 2000 to 71.5% in 2008 and 68.5% in 2012. Not coincidentally, during this period North Carolina emerged as a swing state in national elections.
"The racial data provided to the legislators revealed that African Americans disproportionately used early voting in both 2008 and 2012...trial evidence showing that 60.36% and 64.01% of African Americans voted early in 2008 and 2012, respectively, compared to 44.47% and 49.39% of whites..."
"Some of the statements by those supporting the legislation included a Republican precinct chairman who testified before the House Rules Committee that the photo ID requirement would 'disenfranchise some of [Democrats’] specialvoting blocks [sic],' and that 'that within itself is the reason for the photo voter ID, period, end of discussion' ...Responding to the outcry over the law after its enactment, the same witness later said publicly: 'If [SL 2013-381] hurts the whites so be it. If it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that want the government to give them everything, so be it.'" (Reference to comments made by Don Yelton, former Republican precinct chair of Buncombe County on "The Daily Show" in 2013)