One State Is Doing More To Keep You From Voting Than Any Other

March 28, 2016

a bunch of signs about voting

Sometimes the thing you think is going to happen is exactly what happens.

For example, if you leave a pint of Ben & Jerry’s out on the counter for too long, you just know it’s going to melt, so no one should be surprised to lift up that lid and find ice-cream soup a few hours later. Now, in the grand scheme of things, of course, melted ice cream—though potentially heartbreaking—is no catastrophe.

What’s happened in North Carolina since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act (VRA), though, is an outright disaster, made all the more profoundly infuriating because it was 100% predictable. Everyone suspected it was coming. And everyone was right.


On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the section of the VRA that required states with a history of voting discrimination (like discrimination against minorities) to have the federal government review any changes to their voting laws. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his ruling that “things have changed dramatically” in the South since the VRA was passed in 1965 – implying that discrimination no longer occurs in this country, which we find hard to believe.

Critics warned that things had not changed nearly as much as the Chief Justice seemed to believe.

Well, not even two months after that disastrous decision, the governor of North Carolina signed a huge and comprehensive voter-suppression bill into law. This impeccably timed bill included a potpourri of items intended to severely reduce turnout, especially among African Americans, low-income voters, and students.

  • It required voters to present a government-issue photo ID (i.e., no student IDs, no employee IDs, etc.) before being allowed to vote.
  • It cut the early-voting period by a week.
  • It eliminated same-day voter registration.
  • It eliminated preregistration of 16- or 17-year-olds who would be 18 by Election Day.
  • It banned paid voter-registration drives.
  • It banned out-of-precinct voting, so if people went to the wrong polling station, they would not be allowed to vote.
  • It did a whole lot of other bad, bad stuff that, when combined with everything else on this list, made it harder for people to vote and easier for big money to flow into campaigns.

(A federal appeals court later overturned the provisions banning same-day registration and out-of-precinct ballots.)

But North Carolina hasn’t put all of its voter-suppression eggs in one basket. It’s also the home of some of the most gerrymandered congressional districts in the nation. Finding that North Carolina intentionally designed two of its districts to include a high number of African Americans, thereby reducing their electoral impact in other districts, a federal court recently ruled that the state will need to revise its undemocratic congressional maps.


Why go this far?

Well, the governor and his legislative allies cried a lot about voter fraud, as defenders of such indefensible laws typically do. But the truth is, however much this claim gets repeated, everybody knows that fraud almost never happens.

So… what’s the real answer? Don’t we actually want people to vote? Well, see, that’s the problem. Lots of politicians, including many in North Carolina, really only want certain kinds of people to vote (psssst: the ones who will reliably return them to power).


Almost no other state has done so much to restrict voting in such a short period of time (looking at you, Alabama). But do we have any idea how all these shenanigans have actually affected people during an election?

Yes, we do.

The presidential primaries held on March 15 demonstrated the kind of impact voter-suppression laws like these can have. Around 218,000 voters in the state do not have, under the new law, an acceptable form of ID. Hundreds of college students were turned away during early voting. The elderly were inconvenienced as well, and some of their stories verge on the absurd. A 94-year-old African-American voter named Rosanell Eaton, for example, had to make 11 trips to various agencies last year simply to comply with the law.


North Carolina is a nightmare scenario of what states can do now that they are no longer restrained by section 4 of the VRA. With the removal of the threat of federal oversight, states have been emboldened to continue doing all they can to keep students, minorities, the elderly, and low-income voters from having their voices heard.

These new laws are nothing more than a modern form of Jim Crow. As Reverend Dr. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina Conference of the NAACP, has said, “This is our Selma.”

While battles over North Carolina’s new law and gerrymandered districts play out in courtrooms, we must continue our push to restore the VRA. We have a 200-year history of expanding voting rights, and in the past five years, we’ve only gone in the opposite direction. We can best honor the Voting Rights Act’s legacy of fairness, equality and inclusion by ensuring that its principles once again guide our country over the next half century and beyond.