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Inside the battle over North Carolina’s voter ID laws

October 3, 2015 at 2:25 PM EDT
After the Supreme Court's decision to overturn a key part of the Voting Rights Act, North Carolina's Republican-led state legislature passed a new voter ID law and reversed many of the voting procedures civil rights leaders spent years trying to win. Now, the law is being challenged in federal court. NewsHour's Jeff Greenfield reports.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER: It’s a crime that we stand here 27 days after the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act and we have less voting rights today.

JEFF GREENFIELD: That fiery denunciation by Reverend William Barber, head of North Carolina’s N-double A-C-P, may seem out of a different time and place…

REV. WILLIAM BARBER: Glory! Glory! Glory!

JEFF GREENFIELD: But Barber believes new laws that alter how, where, and when citizens can vote are designed to disenfranchise as many Black voters as possible.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER: All of these attacks on voting rights started right after President Obama won in states, and it changed the dynamic. People came together who hadn’t been coming together in the south. We know that this is an attempt to roll us backwards.”

JEFF GREENFIELD: Barber and the NAACP believe photo voter ID laws in North Carolina and more than a dozen other states suppress minority voter turnout, because black and Latino voters are the most likely to lack an acceptable photo ID or the documents to get one.

Decreases in voter turnout have been found in states that require photo IDs to vote. For example, in the 2008 and 2012 elections, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office attributed a two percent decrease in turnout in Kansas and a two-to-three percent decrease in Tennessee to their photo ID laws.

And many voters in North Carolina are struggling with their new voter ID law that goes into effect in 2016. 94 year old Rosanell Eaton is one of them.

Her daughter drove her 250 miles back and forth from the Department of Motor Vehicles and Social Security offices to get a photo ID, because the name on her driver’s license—her married name – did not match her maiden name on her voter registration from over 70 years ago.

JEFF GREENFIELD: So when people say, it really isn’t that hard under this new law to get what you need.

ROSANELL EATON: It’s not easy at all. It was just unnecessary.

JEFF GREENFIED: The experience reminded her of the hurdle she faced the first time she tried to register to vote in segregated North Carolina almost three quarters of a century ago. Three white men told her.

ROSANELL EATON: To stand right straight and towards the wall and look repeat the preamble of the United States of America. So, I did as they commanded.

JEFF GREENFIELD: You recited the preamble to the U-S Constitution?


JEFF GREENFIELD: The 1965 Voting Rights Act changed things dramatically. By 2012, about 75 percent of Southern Blacks were registered. And for 50 years, that Voting Rights Act empowered the Justice Department to review any changes in voting laws in all states or parts of states with a history of racial discrimination.

Onetime protesters—like Martin Luther King protégé Mickey Michaux—became legislators. 15 years ago, Michaux was part of efforts by a Democratic legislature and governor to make voting much easier, with: two-and-half weeks of early voting, same-day registration during early voting, voting on Sundays, out-of-precinct voting—if you were away from home, you could vote where you were, and pre-registration for 16 and 17-years-olds who were getting their driver’s license.

Michaux is exceptionally candid about why this was done:

REP. MICKEY MICHAUX: Basically a party situation. Most of your African-Americans voted Democratic. And so in order not to lose that base vote, they saw a way where you could increase African-American voting and take credit for having passed all of these openings in your voter laws.

JEFF GREENFIELD: It sounds like what you’re saying, were passed as much for political reasons as some vague sense of justice.

REP. MICKEY MICHAUX: That’s exactly right, there’s no question about it.

JEFF GREENFIELD: And it worked: In the past decade, 70 percent of Blacks in North Carolina voted early, compared with about 50 percent of white voters.

But in 2010, the politics of North Carolina were turned upside down. Republicans gained control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. And with that control came a concerted effort to undo the changes the Democrats had put into place just a few years earlier.

In 2013, the Republican- dominated legislature passed a voter ID law, and the newly-elected Republican governor signed it. Backers cited voter fraud, but in the past decade, the North Carolina State Board of Elections has referred only four cases of alleged voter impersonation to prosecutors, and none have resulted in a conviction.

Nationally, research by a Loyola Law School professor found only 31 “credible allegations” of voter impersonation in one billion-votes between 2000 and 2014.

FRANCIS DE LUCA: Even if you don’t have massive fraud, it gives the electorate a better sense that this election is fair.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Francis DeLuca disagrees that voter ID is a solution in search of a problem. He heads the Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank in Raleigh.

FRANCIS DE LUCA: Could you ever prove there was a problem in a bar with underage drinking if you did not require them to show an ID card?

Voter impersonation is impossible to verify without somebody having to prove who they are.

The other thing that’s important, you can’t do Medicaid, you can’t, well, can’t travel, can’t go to a bank and cash a check without a photo ID, you can’t even go into the county government office building without a photo ID.”

JEFF GREENFIELD: As the voter ID bill worked through the legislature, the US Supreme Court threw out the “pre-clearance” section of the Voting Rights Act arguing that Southern states were being judged “based on 40 year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”

Within weeks, North Carolina’s “voter ID” bill become a 57-page bill that: cut a week of early voting, ended same day registration during early voting, curtailed Sunday voting, ended out-of-precinct voting, ended pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-olds.

Republican State Representative David Lewis chaired the Elections Committee when the bill passed. He says it makes the voting process fairer.

REP. DAVID LEWIS: The rules don’t need to be tweaked in such a way that advantages one side or the other. We say, treat everybody the same.

JEFF GREENFIELD: With early voting cut from 17 to 10 days, one of the two early voting Sundays went away. That limited the so-called “Souls to the Polls” effort, when many Black churches transport congregants to their polling stations.

JEFF GREENFIELD: That looks like, from the superficial level, at least, that had to have been targeted to the African-American community.”

REP. DAVID LEWIS: I certainly don’t think so. Many of our state agencies are not required to work on Sundays. Even if you want to attest or believe that we did something for partisan advantage, it certainly wasn’t done with a racially discriminatory intent.

JEFF GREENFIELD: But that’s no consolation for Dale Hicks, a former Marine who served in Afghanistan. Last year, Hicks and his wife moved from Jacksonville, North Carolina, to Raleigh.

A few days before the 2014 election, he called his election board to learn his new polling place.

DALE HICKS: They told me actually, “No, this means you can’t vote in Raleigh, because your address on your registration says Jacksonville. You can’t vote in Jacksonville, even though your address says Jacksonville, you don’t live in Jacksonville, so it’s not valid.”

I basically felt like I lost the right to vote at that point.

JEFF GREENFIELD: With no more same-day registration during early voting or out-of-precinct voting, Hicks could only cast a provisional ballot, which went uncounted under the new voting rules.

DALE HICKS: It just made me angry. I knew these barriers were being put up, you know. And it worked.

JEFF GREENFIELD: If partisan politics is behind this fight, it raises an intriguing question. Courts generally approve legislation that is politically motivated.

They are much, much tougher on legislation that seems racially inspired. But what happens if those two seem hopelessly entangled. One response comes from Carter Wrenn, a long-time Republican political consultant in North Carolina.

JEFF GREENFIELD: From your perspective, what’s the driving force behind this?

CARTER WRENN: Partisan politics, pure and simple. I mean, race, it gets mixed up in it, but it’s Republicans looking to help Republicans.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Is there a moral equivalence between wanting more people to vote, and wanting fewer people to vote?

CARTER WRENN: You know, I’m not sure. Nobody’s motivations are pure here. If the people that didn’t vote were more likely to vote Republican, I don’t think for a minute the Democrats would be trying to get them to vote.

REP. MICKEY MICHAUX: It is race. The greater makeup of the Democratic Party in this state is African-American.. So if the way that you—you grab power is you take back those things that have affected African-Americans to go to the polls and vote.

JEFF GREENFIELD: The same day North Carolina’s voting reforms were signed into law, the N-double A-C-P sued to stop them. So did the nonpartisan League of Women Voters…and then, the US Justice Department.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: This is an intentional attempt to break a system that was working. It defies common sense.

JEFF GREENFIELD: North Carolina’s own State Board of Elections found that 318 thousand voters lacked the necessary photo ID to vote–one third of them were African Americans, who make up only one fifth of the electorate.

Following a three week trial this summer, a federal judge is now deciding whether or not those North Carolina voting reforms are constitutional. Backers of the law point out that black voter turnout in 2014 rose 16% from the previous midterms in 2010.

But activists credit this to a competitive US Senate race in 2014 and to their get-out-the-vote campaigns. Whichever way the judge here rules and with similar lawsuits in other states, the issue seems destined again for the US Supreme Court, whose decision could help determine who votes next year and perhaps who wins the White House.