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Impact of appeals court ruling against No. Carolina voter I.D. laws

July 29, 2016 at 6:43 PM EDT
A federal appeals court has struck North Carolina’s stringent voting rules that, among other things, required voters to show I.D. before voting. “The new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision," the judges said. The Justice Department and the NAACP had sued the state’s legislature. William Brangham talks with Kareem Crayton, Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: another major ruling about voting laws that could impact the upcoming election.

A federal appeals court today struck down several of North Carolina’s voting rules, ruling that they were intentionally designed to discriminate against black voters.

William Brangham has the latest.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Before we get to the ruling, a bit of background.

Three years ago, the GOP-controlled legislature in North Carolina changed the voting rules in their state. They passed stricter voter I.D. requirements, and cut back on things like early voting and same-day voter registration. Those were reforms Democrats had put in place years before.

But today’s ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals said that those changes discriminated against black voters. The court said — quote — “The new provisions target African-Americans with almost surgical precision,” and that these voting rules impose cures for problems that didn’t exist.

Joining me now to wade through all the implications of all this is Kareem Crayton. He is a visiting professor of law at Vanderbilt University.

Professor Crayton, thank you.

This is a very sweeping ruling by the court today. The court basically argued that the state of North Carolina intentionally discriminated against voters. I mean, that’s a pretty rare finding, isn’t it?

KAREEM CRAYTON, Vanderbilt University: That’s true.

In the modern era, most of these cases get litigated under a concern about the effects of the law, whether they were disproportionately affecting one group or the other.

This is one where the court went so far as to say that the purposes for which this law was adopted were those that prohibited — were prohibited by law, that they were racially discriminatory and targeting African-Americans in a way that the law doesn’t permit.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: What was it specifically that the court found so troubling?

KAREEM CRAYTON: Well, there were a number of circumstances under which this law was adopted that raised some serious suspicions.

First, there was the adoption of the law on the heels of a United States Supreme Court ruling, Shelby County vs. Holder, which had a number of protections against any discrimination or to allow for any discrimination protections for African-Americans, and North Carolina quickly rushed through this statute.

In addition to that, the legislature had information in front of it identifying those avenues for participation that African-Americans disproportionately tended to take advantage of. And when you look at the kinds of things that the new law prescribed or restricted, they really cleverly matched up with those areas, those avenues that African-Americans used more often than not.

And I think the selectivity, of these restrictions ultimately raised the specter of discriminatory intent. So, taking all of that into account, in addition to the fact, of course, that North Carolina has a pretty long history of discrimination with respect to race, and the court found more recent evidence of discrimination in the redistricting cases, this court was willing to say that there was a pretty strong claim that the purposes for this statute were some of the same considerations that were behind the 14th Amendment’s prohibition of assuring that states shouldn’t take race into account in creating new laws.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And supporters in North Carolina of these laws say this had nothing to do with racial discrimination. They were trying to target, they said, voter fraud.

You lived in North Carolina and taught there for a while. Was voter fraud a problem in North Carolina?

KAREEM CRAYTON: Well, the problem with that argument is that — I tend to do work based on evidence and data — and there was no data available to the legislature showing that voter fraud was that kind of consideration that was actually meriting some sort of regulation, or they hadn’t uncovered any evidence that voter fraud was a problem to be solved.

To the extent that there was voter fraud, it sounds like many — there is actually some evidence that members of the legislature had engaged in voter fraud. And none of that in some ways was regulated. The stuff that they seemed to be going after was sort of the specter, the illusion of voter fraud, as opposed to the actual evidence of voter fraud.

And that’s also another factor that sort of influenced the court’s analysis in this case.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: North Carolina obviously isn’t the only state around the nation that is currently changing their voting laws. Why do you think we’re seeing such an uptick in this sudden reformation of voting laws nationwide?

KAREEM CRAYTON: Well, I think one of the considerations is that a lot of the legislatures after 2010 changed hands. The Republicans were very effective at winning a lot of races in an off-year election, when turnout tends to be lower.

In cases like North Carolina, which is understood to be a purple state — you probably will be covering this a lot in the upcoming presidential election — the legislature recognizes that in many — excuse me, statewide contests, every vote tends to make a difference.

And so, from their perspective, I think, from a partisan perspective, the court even recognized there might be some advantage to be had by Republicans limiting populations that tend to vote for Democrats.

And what the court in this case said was, even if that’s present, it doesn’t forgive the targeting of people based upon race. And that was the offensive part under the analysis of the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, practically speaking, if I’m a voter in North Carolina and I go to cast my ballot in this next election, what does this really mean? What does this — how does this change anything?

KAREEM CRAYTON: Well, the court was very clear that this decision should have immediate effect.

And so, while procedurally sometimes you can seek additional review, in this case, the fact that the court had seen such rampant evidence of intent to discriminate, they made sure that this was going to be the law that would apply for the upcoming election.

So, if you’re a voter in North Carolina, the law is now that you can proceed to cast ballots without the restrictions that the legislature put on the ballot — excuse me — put on the books in 2013.

Even if the court in D.C., the Supreme Court, were asked to review this case, the time that it would take to get through that analysis wouldn’t be quick enough in order to apply to this claim in most cases. So I think voters can confidently proceed under the view that they won’t have the same kinds of restrictions that were present in 2013 and 2014 because of the statute.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Kareem Crayton, Vanderbilt University School of Law, thank you very much.

KAREEM CRAYTON: Thank you.

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