North Carolina’s controversial voter identification procedures were struck down Friday, but Republican leaders plan to appeal the decision.
The 2013 legislation required voters to bring photo identification to the voting booth and eliminated both same-day registration and “out-of-precinct voting” as well as a wide range of other provisions. Republicans in favor of the bill claim it deterred voter fraud, but Democrats in opposition claim the law blocked minority communities from voting.
A United States District Court ruled in favor of North Carolina in April, saying the plaintiffs—the United States Department of Justice and the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP—did not show sufficient evidence of discrimination.
However, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed course Friday, throwing out the voter identification requirement and other provisions provided in the 2013 law.
“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’s opinion stated.
Is there fraud?
Laws that limit electoral participation demand what is known as “strict scrutiny,” wrote Michael Munger, director of the philosophy, politics and economics program, in an email.
“That means that the state would have to have both (a) a compelling interest and (b) use the least restrictive means,” Munger wrote.
Both Munger and Kerry Haynie, an associate professor of political science, noted that North Carolina had problems meeting the first part of that test. Evidence of actual voter fraud has consistently been found lacking, both professors explained. The appeals court said North Carolina had “imposed cures for problems that did not exist.”
However, just because there is no actual evidence of voter fraud does not mean there no danger of it, Munger explained.
“There are far more ‘voters’ in many counties than there are actual people,’” Munger wrote. “The reason is that the state is lazy and inefficient about policing the voter registration rolls. So there is a serious potential for fraud. But there is no evidence of fraud.”
He noted that a more effective deterrent to fraud would be better policing of the voter rolls and removing from the list the deceased as well as those who have moved away.
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In addition, Mac McCorkle, associate professor of the practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy, said that the real problem of voter fraud involved the use of absentee ballots.
"What the court has decided is that there is evidence of voter fraud dealing with absentee ballots," McCorkle said. "So, if the problem or issue is absentee ballots, why were only the practices that are disproportionately associated with and would affect poor people and people of color targeted and not the absentee votes?"
Race and the law
Deciding whether the law intentionally targeted minority—often African-American—voters is harder to determine.
Haynie explained that most nationwide voter identification laws came into effect after Barack Obama was elected president, foreshadowing a “potentially dominant electoral coalition anchored by African-American and Latino voters.”
He noted that this was reason to make voting harder, which he compared to “Jim Crow” era laws.
“This voter ID law is reminiscent of the poll taxes and literacy tests of the Jim Crow era,” Haynie wrote. “It is a case of intentional racial discrimination.”
Munger explained that the actual evidence of racial discrimination is sparse because the inability to get voter identification is better correlated with poverty.
“But poor folks are disproportionately African-American,” he also noted.
Fears that African-Americans will be disenfranchised in mass numbers are also unrealistic, Munger argued. He wrote that African-American voter participation rates have actually gone up in recent years.
A 2012 analysis by Democracy North Carolina found that African-American voters had a higher turn-out rate (70 percent) than whites (69 percent) and Latinos (54 percent). The court also noted the increase, but warned that voter identification laws still pose a “vote suppression” risk.
McCorkle noted that there was a slight increase in voter turnout among African Americans in 2014, but that it was smaller than the usual yearly growth in African-American voter turnout of past years.
He also said that just because the Republican legislators may not have been successful in decreasing voter turnout among certain demographics, does not mean that what they did was not unconstitutional.
North Carolina’s Republican leadership was quick to denounce Friday's ruling. Governor Pat McCrory issued a statement denouncing the ruling and promising to appeal. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, as well as the North Carolina Republican Party, similarly condemned the decision as partisan in nature.
The whole situation calls into question the integrity of Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat also running for governor, Munger wrote.
Munger noted that “people on the left” are hypocritical to applaud Cooper for not enforcing the law, when they previously criticized Kentucky clerk Kim Davis for not issuing same-sex marriage licenses even after it was legalized.
“The basis for the argument can't be state officials can choose which laws to enforce,” Munger wrote.
The attorney general’s office did defend the law, but Republican leaders have accused the office of not mounting a strong defense. Cooper has spoken out against the law.
As for the court decision’s effects on the 2016 election, Munger noted that the ruling may influence the parties’ abilities to distract the electorate.
“The Democrats can whine about 'vote suppression,' which is ludicrous,” he wrote. ”And the Republicans can whine about 'fraud,' even though there is no evidence of fraud. It's a kabuki dance that the state-sponsored parties can use to distract voters from their incompetence on real issues.”
Haynie, on the other hand, wrote it boosted Hillary Clinton's [and other Democrats'] campaigns. McCorkle agreed that it might have some impact.
"I don’t know whether you are going to be able to trace a significant change in voter turnout due to this ruling but every little bit helps or hurts in a close race," McCorkle said.
Currently, Clinton is within two points of Republican nominee Donald Trump according to polling aggregation website, FiveThirtyEight. Cooper is within one point of Governor McCrory, according to polling website RealClearPolitics. The latter website also has Deborah Ross, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, within four points of incumbent Republican Sen. Richard Burr.