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Supreme Court's Decision Maintains Ruling that Discrimination Has No Place at the Polls

Voting Rights Protest
Voting Rights Protest
Dale Ho,
Former Director,
Voting Rights Project, ACLU
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May 15, 2017

The Supreme Court announced today that it would not review a North Carolina law that, if enacted, would have deprived thousands of Americans of their right to vote. The decision effectively shuts the door on the state’s last available option to resuscitate the 2013 Voter Identification Verification Act, which an appeals court struck down last year as intentionally discriminatory against Black voters.

Almost four years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union and Southern Coalition for Social Justice challenged VIVA, described by one expert as “the most sweeping anti-voter law in at least decades.” If enforced, VIVA would have imposed a new voter ID requirement, cut a week of early voting, and eliminated both same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting. It is undeniable that if enforced, VIVA would chill the ability of citizens to exercise their right to vote. Even more chilling is that the bill was designed that way.

Prior to VIVA’s passage in the state Senate, the North Carolina legislature requested racial data on the usage of the specific voting practices that were to be changed by the proposed law. The results were clear: Black North Carolinians were much more likely to make use of early voting, same-day registration, and out-of-precinct voting, and they were much less likely to have DMV-issued photos IDs. With these findings in hand, the legislature promptly crafted a bill that restricted all — and only — practices disproportionately used by Black voters.

We took the state to court, focusing on several key provisions of the law:

  • Voter Identification. During the legislative process, the bill, which originally permitted voters to use any form of government-issued photo ID to vote, was amended to ban student IDs, government employee IDs, and public assistance IDs for voting purposes — all of which are disproportionately held by Black North Carolinians. The legislature offered no justification whatsoever for these changes.
  • Early Voting. During the 2012 presidential election, North Carolina maintained a 17-day early voting period. It was disproportionately used by Black voters, 70 percent of whom cast their ballots early during the last two presidential elections. VIVA sought to slash seven days of early voting time — a period in which 900,000 North Carolinians cast their ballots during the 2012 election.
  • Same-Day Registration. In the last two presidential elections, over 90,000 North Carolina voters used same-day registration. In particular, Black voters relied on same-day registration at nearly twice the rate of white voters. VIVA would have eliminated same-day registration, which for many North Carolinians made the difference between voting and not voting.
  • Out-of-Precinct Votes. In the past, if a registered voter appeared at the wrong precinct — whether by accident or due to poll-worker error — North Carolina would count that voter’s ballot for all offices for which that person was eligible to vote. VIVA ended that practice, despite it not making a difference where a vote was cast for certain statewide offices like senator or governor. Ballots cast at the wrong precinct — even if due to no fault of the voter — would be discarded if VIVA were enacted.

In July of 2016, we secured a major victory when the appeals court found that the legislators behind VIVA deliberately set out to target Black North Carolinians with “almost surgical precision.” In early January, the state sought Supreme Court review, despite the newly elected governor moving to drop the petition.

Today, the Supreme Court denied the North Carolina legislature its last option to keep VIVA alive and North Carolina voters suppressed. This major voting rights victory could not have come at a better time — states across the country are enacting laws that unduly restrict access to voting. These laws, in almost every instance, disproportionately impact communities of color, first-time, and low-income voters.

Today’s ruling sends an unequivocal message to lawmakers in North Carolina and those across the country who would limit voting rights: Not on our watch.

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