DOJ reloads in battle over voting rights


The Obama administration launched a legal challenge Monday to North Carolina’s restrictive new voting law, accusing the state’s legislature of intentionally discriminating against black voters.

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A Justice Department lawsuit filed in North Carolina federal court is the latest salvo in a heated battle over protections for minority voters and the limits of federal government authority over state election regulations.

The action follows a major setback for the administration this summer, when a divided Supreme Court sided against the Justice Department’s challenge of a Texas state law, effectively gutting a major portion of the Voting Rights Act.

“The administration promised a decisive response and this is it,” UCLA law professor Adam Winkler said, describing the North Carolina case as “a bold move.”

At issue are provisions of a new Tar Heel State statute that would reduce the number of early voting days and require North Carolinians to show photo identification before they are allowed to cast ballots.

"The state legislature took extremely aggressive steps to curtail the voting rights of African-Americans," Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters during a news conference at the agency's headquarters.

Holder contends the new law, signed in August by North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R), would make it more difficult for people to vote and would disproportionately impact minorities.

In the last election cycle, more than 70 percent of black voters in North Carolina cast their ballots during the early voting period, Holder said. The new law would shrink the early voting period from 17 days to 10 days.

“Allowing limits on voting rights that disproportionately exclude minority voters would be inconsistent with our ideals as a nation,” Holder said.

Other contested provisions of the statute eliminate same-day registration during the early voting period and invalidate legitimate provisional ballots that are mistakenly cast in the right county but in the wrong precinct.

The law also requires voters to show identification at polling places.

Proponents of the law say it is needed to prevent voter fraud.

“Common practices like boarding an airplane and purchasing Sudafed require photo ID, and we should expect nothing less for the protection of our right to vote,” McCrory said upon signing the law in August. “While some will try to make this seem to be controversial, the simple reality is that requiring voters to provide a photo ID when they vote is a common-sense idea.”

On Monday, Holder bristled at the notion that such state laws are motivated by concerns about fraud, calling the assertion “not real.”

"We will show that these are discriminatory, both in intent and impact," Holder said.

The DOJ is also asking the court to reinstate a requirement that the agency sign off on any changes to election procedures in North Carolina and other states with histories of discrimination.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a June Supreme Court decision that struck down the Voting Rights Act's provision requiring those states to obtain federal preclearance before tightening voting rules.

In the wake of the ruling, lawmakers in North Carolina and other Republican-led states began drafting bills calling for more restrictive election rules.

Approved by a Republican-controlled legislature and signed by a GOP governor, the North Carolina legislation was opposed by top Democratic officials from the state.

On Monday, Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) said the law reverses years of progress toward expanding voting access.

“North Carolina’s voting law is the most restrictive in the country and I am confident it will be struck down by the court,” he said in a written statement.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, also opposed the legislation and urged McCrory to veto the bill. Yet he is bound to defend it against the federal challenge.

“This office will continue to do its duty under the law to defend the state in court," said Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office.

Winkler, the UCLA professor, said the Obama administration’s case faces a difficult path forward.

Proving intentional discrimination, he said, would not be easy. And the administration’s argument that North Carolina should be made to get federal approval for all changes to its voting system, or be “opted in” to the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance requirements, requires proof that the state has a continuing history of discrimination.

“No state has ever been opted in by judicial ruling before, so a victory here would be groundbreaking,” Winkler said. 

— This story was originally posted at 12:29 a.m. and has been updated.