July may be the month that voter suppression died.
In the latest of a string of shocking judicial decisions, a federal appeals court Friday struck down North Carolina’s voting restrictions, some of the strictest in the nation. Today’s action comes after the normally conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Texas’s Voter ID laws, and a federal district court placed an injunction against Wisconsin’s.
“This is a huge victory,” Dale Ho, the ACLU lawyer who argued the case in North Carolina, told The Daily Beast. “The tide is turning.”
It could also swing the presidential election. As we reported last February, new voting restrictions were set to block over 1.3 million voters in four swing states—Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin— mostly by eliminating early voting periods and requiring specific forms of identification.
North Carolina’s 2016 law alone affected more than 1.2 million people: 900,000 people utilized early voting in 2012, 130,000 used same-day registration in 2008, and, surprisingly, more than 200,000 registered voters don’t have driver’s licenses. As of today, those votes are back in play.
By way of comparison, Barack Obama won the state by 15,000 votes in 2008, and Mitt Romney won by 117,000 in 2012.
But the Fourth Circuit didn’t just strike down North Carolina’s new rules. The three-judge panel wrote an opinion filled with fiery rhetoric that condemned the state legislature for acting with discriminatory intent. It noted that “after years of preclearance and expansion of voting access, by 2013 African American registration and turnout rates had finally reached near-parity with white registration and turnout rates. African Americans were poised to act as a major electoral force.”
But that year, after the Supreme Court ruled that part of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional, the state “requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices. Upon receipt of the race data, the General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration in five different ways, all of which disproportionately affected African Americans… 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.”
These are unusually strong words, both in ordinary language and in legalese. It’s not just that North Carolina’s law happens to affect communities of color—the Court found that it was intended to do so all along.
That’s different from the Fifth Circuit’s finding that Texas’s Voter ID law had a disparate impact on minority communities. It’s actually calling out North Carolina for racial discrimination.
Does that mean that North Carolina’s legislators are racist? Not quite.
“Discriminatory intent means singling out a group on the basis of race and trying to disadvantage them on that basis,” Ho explained. “It doesn’t matter if you hate black voters, or don’t like how black voters vote. If you’re targeting them, that is discrimination.”
That, the appeals court found, is exactly what North Carolina did. Inventing a voter fraud crisis that didn’t exist, the state “required in-person voters to show certain photo IDs, beginning in 2016, which African Americans disproportionately lacked, and eliminated or reduced registration and voting access tools that African Americans disproportionately used.”
All this correlation, the court ruled, couldn’t be an accident. There was no smoking gun—no careless comment about disenfranchising black voters—but the way the gun was loaded, aimed, and fired left no doubt about the law’s purpose.
“The only clear factor linking these various ‘reforms’ is their impact on African American voters,” the court held. “The record thus makes obvious that the ‘problem’ the majority in the General Assembly sought to remedy was emerging support for the minority party.”
The cases in Wisconsin, Texas, and North Carolina represent a sea change in judicial opinion about voting restrictions. And with challenges pending in Ohio, Virginia, and Kansas, it seems like voter suppression’s days may be numbered.
Ho told The Daily Beast that public opinion is shifting as well.
“When these laws first got passed, people thought ‘what’s the big deal—I have ID.’ But the truth is that while 90 percent of us do have ID, 10 percent don’t… and it’s those folks that these laws target. Not everyone has the same advantages that we have or live in the same circles.”
In the meantime, North Carolina’s photo ID requirement, changes to early voting, same-day registration, out-of-precinct voting, and preregistration have all been put on hold. A million more voters will now go to the polls.
And while the state could appeal, Ho said, with a little bit of bragging in his voice, “I don’t like their odds.”