African-American voters in North Carolina won a major victory last week when a federal appeals court panel struck down a state voter ID law that would have barred hundreds of thousands of black citizens from casting ballots in the November elections. The court said the measure, passed in 2013 by the state's GOP-controlled legislature and Republican governor ostensibly to prevent voter fraud, was in fact a deliberate attempt to disenfranchise minorities that targeted African-American voters "with almost surgical precision." And it decisively rejected arguments that in-person voter fraud, the only kind of fraud a photo ID requirement might prevent, was a serious problem in North Carolina.
It's been apparent for some time that Republicans have been bent on rolling back voting rights protections for minorities that have been in place since the civil rights era of the 1960s. It's equally clear that the justification of protecting the integrity of elections used by some states to pass draconian restrictions on voting is a red herring. Even George W. Bush's Justice Department concluded that in-person voting fraud is exceedingly rare. But the way such laws are drafted make them remarkably efficient barriers to minorities, the poor and elderly citizens seeking to exercise their right to vote.
The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit struck down North Carolina's requirement that permitted voters to present only certain types of photo ID at the polls before being allowed to cast their ballots, and it reinstated their right to register on Election Day. The court also threw out provisions of the law that barred young people from registering before reaching the legal voting age of 18 and that banned early voting, and it required the state to count the ballots cast by people who had mistakenly voted at the wrong polling stations in the last election.
North Carolina Republicans enacted the state's more restrictive voting law a few months after a 2013 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required states with a history of discrimination to obtain advance federal approval before changing their election laws in ways that could discriminate against African-Americans. North Carolina was among nine states, mostly in the South, that had been closely monitored by the Justice Department until then, and critics warned that the court had become willfully blind to the state's continuing efforts to disenfranchise black voters.
But the appeals panel expressed no such reluctance to acknowledge the discriminatory intent of North Carolina's law. It noted that state lawmakers had already collected data that clearly showed black voters would be most severely affected by the law, and it concluded that the only possible explanation for enacting it was to depress black turnout. "We cannot ignore the record evidence that, because of race, the legislature enacted one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history," the court ruled. It went on to call the law's provisions "inapt remedies for the problems assertedly justifying them," and that they "in fact, impose cures for problems that did not exist."
The appeals court decision was handed down on the same day that a district court in Wisconsin also struck down parts of that state's 2011 voter ID law as unconstitutional, ruling that "the evidence in this case casts doubt on the notion that voter ID laws foster integrity and confidence," and that "Wisconsin's experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections.''
The decisions handed down last week come on the heels of two other recent rulings against GOP-sponsored voter ID laws, in Texas and Kansas, and they seem virtually certain to have an impact on what is developing as a closely contested general election race in November. North Carolina and Wisconsin, in particular, are considered swing states this year where minority and young voters may well decide the outcome. It's clear now that the Supreme Court in 2013 was too quick to view this country's long history of racial discrimination in the voting booth as largely a thing of the past. But the fact that lower federal courts have already begun limiting the impact of that short-sighted decision offers hope that the error will be corrected when a ninth justice is finally seated on the nation's highest court.