CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. North Carolina is proving itself to be the poster child for all that is wrong with modern American democracy and – with thanks to Moral Mondays – also highlighting all that may someday save it.
Once a temperate and tolerant beacon of the South, the state is enacting a rash of inexpressibly awful legislation, rushed through a Republican legislature. Because the GOP has veto-proof super-majorities in the state House and Senate, and a Republican governor for the first time since Reconstruction, the party has been on a spree.
How does the state legislature control an electorate that by all accounts really hates the state’s new legislative initiatives? Simple. Drown them out – by diluting minority/Democratic votes through redistricting, or suppressing the vote.
Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, 40 counties in North Carolina had to go to the federal government for pre-approval of any change to local election law. When the Supreme Court locked up Section 5 last month, by a vote of 5-4, it gave a great gift to the disenfranchisement community. States no longer need to check their crazy with federal courts or the Justice Department. The obligation to prove that you aren’t harming minority voters (or expressly targeting them) has gone. Texas and Mississippi charged ahead with their own controversial voter ID laws within hours of the Supreme Court ruling. Alabama and Mississippi have either passed or are working on similar ones. And this week North Carolina expanded its Voter ID bill to better disenfranchise a few more voters who might have leaned left, including students, blacks and women.
Indeed, North Carolina has just put in place a vote suppression regime that can only really be described as political performance art. The bill drastically reduces early voting, does away with same-day voter registration, weakens the disclosure of so-called independent expenditures, disenfranchises felons and the “mentally incompetent,” authorizes vigilante poll observers, and penalizes families of college students who vote out of state.
The voter ID component of the bill is probably the most draconian in the nation. It cuts to seven the forms of permissible identification. The new voter ID rules will hit African-American voters, women, and Democrats hardest.
While the General Assembly allocated $1 million in the budget to implement the new voting regime, estimates of the actual cost range from $3 million to $20 million. Voters themselves will soon be paying for the privilege of being denied the vote.
This brings us to the amazing book review in the New York Review of Books this weekend, by retired Justice John Paul Stevens, of Professor Gary May’s superb new book, “Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy.” May scrutinizes the forces that led to the original passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, with an emphasis on the brute violence and racial ugliness that accompanied efforts to vote, organize and protest.
Stevens aligns himself with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion in the Supreme Court’s June decision that hamstrung Section 5, and expressly takes on Chief Justice John Roberts’ constitutional claim that the “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty among the states” controlled the case. Stevens also lambastes the majority for usurping the role of Congress, writing that while some neutral decision-maker could surely find that the preclearance formula is now dated: “The opinion fails, however, to explain why such a decision should be made by the members of the Supreme Court.”
May’s book offer a grim reminder of how truly awful things were for Southern Blacks before the VRA was enacted, and how hard Southern whites worked to suppress their votes, long after they were legally granted the franchise.
He details the beatings, deaths, police-led violence and brutality that culminated in the events of “Bloody Sunday” in March of 1965. As May concludes, “History reveals that improved conditions come less from a revolution in white attitudes toward African-Americans than from the act’s effectiveness in altering electoral conditions that had prevented blacks from winning elections.”
Stevens’ object in his review is not just to call out the majority for its overreach but to try to shake his colleagues out of their willful ignorance of how egregious state efforts at vote suppression have been and continue to be, and how extensive the record of brazen misconduct remains.
The underlying paradox of the Court’s June ruling is that it was the Voting Rights Act that stopped efforts to suppress votes and limit voting in Texas, North Carolina and Florida in the 2012 elections. The law was a victim of its own success, not just in the distant past, but only months earlier. In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg wrote that “the sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective.” She famously added that throwing out the law’s key protection for minority voters “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Less than a month later, it’s raining vote suppression in North Carolina. And the forecast calls for a whole lot more of the same.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
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