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Feds right take on N.C. voter suppression

In a lawsuit Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder said what many in North Carolina, including this editorial board, have already said: That a sweeping elections law the N.C. General Assembly rammed through this summer is restrictive and discriminatory. Rather than stopping in-person fraud, as proponents allege, the law’s unnecessary changes will only make it more burdensome for legitimate voters to cast a ballot.

In a press conference Monday, Justice officials echoed what critics of N.C. law have been shouting since the changes were unveiled. They said that making it difficult for certain voters – particularly minorities – was not simply the effect of the changes, but the blatant intent of the Republican lawmakers who devised them.

It’s difficult not to believe that’s true, given changes that have nothing to do with fraud, such reducing early voting days or or disallowing provisional voting if a person shows up at the wrong precinct by mistake.

N.C. legislative leaders and Gov. Pat McCrory fired back quickly Monday, saying that the Justice Department’s claims were baseless, with McCrory calling the suit an “overreach” and praising the merits of the law as “commonsense” and “protecting the integrity of every vote.” McCrory added that his administration has “hired legal counsel” to help defend the law.

That move is perhaps a nod to Republican lawmakers’ anxiety that N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat who earlier expressed concerns about the legislation, would not put up a vigorous defense of it. But it is also a clear indication of the potential costliness of these unneeded changes.

This editorial board called the moves a wasteful boondoggle in July. We said then that they were solutions in search of a problem – especially when it came to in-person voter fraud, which is all but non-existent in North Carolina.

Clearly, the N.C. changes will have a disproportionate impact on minorities and other groups that tend to vote for Democrats. The DOJ suit challenges four of them: the state's reductions to early voting; the elimination of same-day registration during that early voting period; the prohibition on counting provisional ballots if voters vote out of their precinct; and the strict photo identification requirement without protections for voters who lack that required ID.

The lawsuit against North Carolina follows Justice Department action in July against Texas, where the legislature also pushed through restrictive voting laws. Both states had been subject to DOJ approval of voting law changes, but this summer the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act requiring pre-clearance.

Holder said the lawsuit against North Carolina should be taken as warning to other states that the Justice Department will use all remaining available tools to ensure that the rights of voters are protected.

We should all embrace that goal. Voting is the foundation of our democracy. Attempts to hinder the rights of legitimate voters to exercise those rights should be forcefully fought. But Congress has a role in ensuring those rights, too. The high court invalidated the pre-clearance portion of the Voting Rights Act because, they said, it was “based on 40 year old facts.” Congress can and should update that formula to provide the needed enforcement tools to protect voters’ rights. Voter suppression efforts like the changes in North Carolina and Texas should not be allowed.

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