What’s the Matter With North Carolina?

The state went from beacon of tolerance to bastion of voter suppression in a month.

A voter gets directions on how to use the electronic voting booth at the Board of Elections early voting site on Oct. 18, 2012 in Wilson, N.C.
A voter gets directions on how to use the electronic voting booth at an early voting site on Oct. 18, 2012 in Wilson, N.C.

Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

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 poised to enact 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. Republican-controlled redistricting was fantastically effective. So much so that in the 2012 elections, nearly 51 percent of North Carolina voters picked a Democrat for the U.S. House, yet Republicans won nine of the state’s 13 House seats, as Chris Kromm and Sue Sturgis recently pointed out.

Some of the gems advanced recently in the legislature include an abortion bill tacked first onto an anti-Sharia law and then snuck in through a motorcycle safety law (new TRAP regulations may shutter all but one clinic in the state). Another bill forces all educators to teach seventh graders that abortion causes preterm birth (it doesn’t). Lawmakers also enacted legislation (described here and elsewhere as “the harshest unemployment insurance program cuts in our nation’s history”) that resulted in 70,000 North Carolina citizens losing their unemployment benefits. The state is one of the 15 to have refused Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. A proposed education bill would slash teacher compensation, (already ranked among the lowest in the nation), eliminate tenure, and use vouchers to reallocate $90 million of public-school funding to private schools (The school superintendent issued a statement this week saying that in light of the proposed deep cuts to the education budget “For the first time in my career of more than 30 years in public education, I am truly worried about students in our care.”) Don’t forget the embarrassing proposed resolution allowing counties and cities to enshrine a state religion. Or the proposed ban on nipples.

But none of this is a joke. For reasons that Kromm and Sturgis lay out at length, it’s a well-funded, Koch-endorsed Christmas rush to get everything done right now.

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 Tuesday, North Carolina took the first step to expanding its Voter ID bill to better disenfranchise a few more voters who might have leaned left, including students, African-Americans, and women.

Indeed, North Carolina has just put in place a vote suppression regime that can only really be described as political performance art. Here is the proposed new elections omnibus bill. It 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. If it passes, no county or municipal government or public employee IDs will be valid proof of voter identification. Nor will any photo ID issued by a public assistance agency, or any student ID from any college. The new voter ID rules will hit African-American voters, women, and Democrats hardest. The indispensable Ari Berman sums up the aggregate effect as follows: “According to the state’s own numbers, 316,000 registered voters don’t have state-issued ID; 34 percent are African-American and 55 percent are registered Democrats. Of the 138,000 voters without ID who cast a ballot in the 2012 election, 36 percent were African-American and 59 registered percent Democrats.” And the scourge of voter fraud in North Carolina, at which the proposed law is directed? Between 2000 and 2010 there have been two cases of alleged voter impersonation. In that period three people also ate pop rocks and died.

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. It is the voters themselves who will soon be paying for the privilege of being denied the vote.

This brings us to the rather 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 institutional overreach—although he does that with gusto—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 Supreme Court’s June ruling is that it was deployment of 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.