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Was the Supreme Court ruling a setback for voting rights?

April 21, 2014 at 6:35 PM EDT
In the months since the Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act, five states have tightened access to voting. The ruling has sparked nationwide debate, and the Obama administration is pushing back with an investigation. Gwen Ifill gets views from Kareem Crayton of University of North Carolina School of Law and David Lewis, a North Carolina state representative.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: As you just heard, the Supreme Court’s rulings continue to resonate on any number of critical issues. And as the midterm elections approach, we turn our attention tonight to one decision that could have immediate impact.

In the nearly-a-year since the Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act, five states have tightened access to voting. From Texas to Virginia, state and local governments have taken steps to require voter identification, eliminate same-day registration, and to limit voting hours and locations.

The Obama administration is now pushing back, launching its own investigations into polling place complaints. The president himself has led the charge, speaking earlier this month in New York.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: But the stark, simple truth is this: The right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago.

GWEN IFILL: Former President Bill Clinton suggested the Supreme Court decision was a setback for civil rights during a speech at the LBJ Library two days earlier.

FMR. PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: And all of a sudden, there are all new barriers to voting to make it harder to vote. Is this what Martin Luther King gave his life for? Is this what Lyndon Johnson employed his legendary skills for?

GWEN IFILL: Eleven states now have strict voter I.D. laws on the books, while seven others are working to loosen restrictions.

Officials in the affected states long argued that Justice Department scrutiny is no longer needed and a bigger threat is posed by people who abuse the franchise by voting under duplicate names or at incorrect locations.

Part of the backdrop in Senate the debate, who votes. Non-whites make up 37 percent of the U.S. population. But, in 2012, they made up just 28 percent of the electorate. The percentage was even lower, 23 percent, during the 2010 midterm elections. That’s the year Republicans took back control of the House.

We take a closer look now at a state where the fight over voting laws has been gathering steam, North Carolina.

Joining me are Republican State Representative David Lewis and Kareem Crayton, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law.

So, since the Supreme Court, Professor Crayton, ruled last June, how have things changed in your home state?

KAREEM CRAYTON, University of North Carolina School of Law: Well, a number of things happened fairly quickly after the court adopted its decision.

One thing was, an omnibus voting bill was adopted that essentially undid a lot of the progress that North Carolina had made over the last basically decade or so in making voting more accessible and easier for citizens to cast their ballots. And the omnibus bill did, among other things, it rolled back same-day registration. It limited the number of days that one could access early voting.

And most significant in what is in courts right now being litigated is the effort to impose new requirements on voter I.D.s.

GWEN IFILL: Representative Lewis, as someone who presumably voted for that legislation, explain why.

DAVID LEWIS, R, North Carolina State Representative: Well, thank you so much for the chance to be with you.

And as I have said repeatedly during the debate, it has been our goal to make sure that every person who is eligible to vote is fully able to vote, and encouraged to do so.

We felt like that there were some additional procedures, some commonsense things that needed to be passed to improve the overall integrity of the process, to make sure that everyone who wanted to vote was able to vote and that those votes cumulatively would determine who wins and who loses elections.

GWEN IFILL: As you probably are aware, President Obama and Attorney General Holder and even former President Clinton spoke in the last couple of weeks saying this was a setback for voting rights. What is your response to them?

DAVID LEWIS: I would have to respectfully disagree.

As I have said all along, it is our intent that everyone who is eligible to vote be able to go to the ballot box and exercise their sacred right to participate. But it’s important to point out that if we don’t have logical safeguards — the professor pointed out in his opening remarks that we no longer have same-day registration.

Well, the reason we don’t is because there was no way to have enough time to do the mail verification process to make sure that someone who registers and voted on the same day is, in fact, entitled to vote. So the election would be over, the election results would be in, and then we find out that perhaps this person shouldn’t have been able to vote at all.

So I would respectfully say that I think a lot of the noise out of the left right now on voting rights is more of a political issue meant to energize their base and to agitate, maybe even to scare some folks. Certainly, it has been our intent, as we have said all along, that everyone who is entitled to vote gets to do so.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Professor Crayton to respond. There is a lot there to respond to. Take your pick.

KAREEM CRAYTON: Well, I think, to begin with, I think everyone who is entitled to vote is every citizen in the state of North Carolina. It’s an entitlement to have the right to vote. And it shouldn’t be limited, except in circumstances it seems to me — and I think the court decisions have supported this view — unless there are really significant issues or rationales on the other side.

And I think the problem really that is reflected in the legislature’s omnibus bill is, some of it doesn’t really fit the evidence that is on the record as to what the problem is they’re trying to solve. There’s not really a great deal of evidence at all of the kind of corruption or fraud that seemingly is motivating the legislature.

But I think the other thing about common sense that the representative raises, I think everybody likes to encourage decisions that are reflecting commonsense values. But when a voter I.D. bill, for example, says we want you to show valid photo I.D. that they don’t permit, say, at the University of North Carolina, where I work, a student who has voter I.D. that shows his picture and who he is, that is not permitted to be used in the voting polls, it seems to be not really reflective of the common sense that I think most North Carolinians sort of expect.

GWEN IFILL: So what do you think is the motivating force behind these laws?

KAREEM CRAYTON: Well, some of it, of course, is, as, you know, I think most people recognize, the Republicans have taken over the legislature.

And, you know, just as Democrats do in some case, they want to have structural options that make it more likely that their voters come out and others that don’t. But I think the other element of this that is troubling, more troubling to me, frankly, is that when there is evidence that there are disparate levels of access to the ballot by having some of these rules in place, particularly disparate levels with respect to race, where African-Americans are less likely to be able to get access to the ballot because they have used early voting in the past, when you put bills into place that make that less available, it creates problems that I think require greater attention.

And the Voting Rights Act made legislatures pay closer attention to it. Without having Section 5 review in place, we now have to litigate in order to get that attention.

GWEN IFILL: Representative Lewis, that is a lot on your plate now. He talked about race. He talked about fairness. He talked about partisanship. How much do any of those things play a role in this debate?

DAVID LEWIS: Well, as the professor knows, why, yes, citizenship is the threshold that must be met in order to be able to vote.

So the courts have ruled that things like requiring voter registration are in no way an impediment to being able to exercise that right. And, as far as the number of days that are allowed for early voting, I would encourage the professor and all of your viewers to look across the country at the average number of days, and you will find that most states across the country have eight days. North Carolina has 10.

We also passed language in the legislation that said we have the same number of hours in which that the voters could go to the polls and exercise their right. The thoughts were exactly like in my own home county, that more one-stop sites would be opened up in order to meet that, so that the person who wakes up early in the morning and gets their kids ready for school and goes to work and works all day and picks the kids up from day care has just enough time to get home and prepare the meal.

GWEN IFILL: But let me ask you this.

Is it fixing a problem — that you have evidence that fixed a problem that existed?

DAVID LEWIS: Well, we definitely have evidence, as I said, that folks that — some folks that registered to vote on the same day were never able to be verified.

We don’t know if they were actually eligible to vote or not. We think it does make sense to present a photo I.D., that the photo matches the name to say who you say you are. The professor referenced student I.D.s  Doesn’t it not make sense that if are you going attest, as the constitution of North Carolina calls for, that you are a resident of the state, that you would have taken time to have gone to the DMV and to get your driver’s license or to get your non-operator’s license, if this is truly your home, if this is the home in which are you going to exercise that precious right to vote, certainly being able to obtain an I.D. at no direct cost to you can’t be considered an impediment to voting.

GWEN IFILL: Well, this sounds like this is an issue that the administration is certainly not going to give up on.

And we’re going to — the Supreme Court may have just started this argument.

Kareem Crayton from the University of North Carolina and David Lewis with the North Carolina House of Representatives, thank you very much.

DAVID LEWIS: Thank you.