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Supreme Court Decision Prompts New Look At NC Voting Laws

The North Carolina Legislative Building
Dave Crosby

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act affects a number of southern states, including North Carolina.

Previously, the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington had to approve or pre-clear state laws that affect voting, including redistricting. It also had to approve local and municipal decisions in 40 North Carolina counties with a history of voting discrimination.

But that has changed. And Republican lawmakers in North Carolina say they’re ready for what comes next. Republican legislators who are eager to make changes to the state’s voting laws say they followed the Supreme Court’s oral arguments over the Voting Rights Act closely. That’s why they thought it would be a good idea to prepare for the decision the justices ended up making yesterday. Senate Rules Committee Chairman Tom Apodaca says to expect a big voting bill in the near future.

"We’re putting it together," said Apodaca. "It’ll be an omnibus bill with a lot of different election laws and changes in it. We haven’t finalized it yet. But we hope to roll it out Monday or Tuesday and let everybody take a look at it."

Apodaca says the Supreme Court’s decision has also given new life to another bill that would require North Carolinians to bring photo IDs with them to the polls.

Republican lawmakers’ interest in changing how North Carolinians could vote isn’t a surprise, says Guy Charles, an expert on election law at Duke Law School. He says the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision is like removing a speed bump from a busy road.

"Those folks inclined to speed are now going to find the path a lot easier and so you’re expected to see some change in behavior, because a speed bump probably deterred some people from engaging in that behavior," said Charles.

The Supreme Court did not strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires preclearance. Instead, it struck down Section 4, specifying which states need to be monitored. Chief Justice John Roberts said the data used to figure out the states on the list is too old. Writing for the court majority, he said if Congress wants to make a new list it should use new data. Charles says it gives a green light to lawmakers here who want to try to change things:

"And so the absence of Section 5 and the removal of Section 4 might make it easier for the state legislature and some counties to say you know what, we can pass this law because we don’t have to worry about pre-clearing it with the Justice Department."

Civil rights advocates fear there will be a deluge of measures designed to restrict voting in the state. That includes Reverend William Barber, who heads the state NAACP. He says he hopes Congress takes quick action to come up with updated data so the feds will resume the pre-clearance process.

"They don’t need to drag this out, and especially with our state legislature having an ominous bill full of voter suppression tactics that they wanna unleash on the North Carolina populace in order to hold on to power," said Barber.

But with a divided Congress, most experts aren’t expecting a new Section 4 formula to be created any time soon. And they point out the Supreme Court’s decision doesn’t mean states and counties can discriminate against voters. Plaintiffs can always challenge voting laws like the Voter ID bill on the basis of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act or the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, or even state statutes.

"I think they’ll still be attacked and they’ll still be attacked successfully, but it’ll probably be through a lawsuit by advocates," said Democrat Martin Nesbitt, the Senate Minority Leader. He thinks if Republican lawmakers try to push through a raft of measures designed to change voting laws, they’ll get plenty of pushback: "the courts could enjoin implementation of it," said Nesbitt. "They may have gotten a dose of Viagra here with this decision and want to jump on in and if they do it proves the point that North Carolina needs help."

Nesbitt says he expects that would come in handy if Congress ever decides to come up with a new list of places where voting rights are threatened.

Jessica Jones covers both the legislature in Raleigh and politics across the state. Before her current assignment, Jessica was given the responsibility to open up WUNC's first Greensboro Bureau at the Triad Stage in 2009. She's a seasoned public radio reporter who's covered everything from education to immigration, and she's a regular contributor to NPR's news programs. Jessica started her career in journalism in Egypt, where she freelanced for international print and radio outlets. After stints in Washington, D.C. with Voice of America and NPR, Jessica joined the staff of WUNC in 1999. She is a graduate of Yale University.
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