Holder announces lawsuit against 'restrictive' North Carolina voter law

Attorney general says statute would 'disproportionately exclude minority voters' and be inconsistent with US ideals

Holder says concerns about voter fraud are simply "made up."
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The Justice Department announced plans to sue North Carolina Monday for alleged racial discrimination related to the state's new voting rules, passed earlier this year and signed into law by its governor.  

Those rules were passed in the weeks after the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act and subsequently freed nine states, mostly in the South, from strict federal oversight of their elections.

The invalidated section of the Voting Rights Act applied to Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia as well as counties and municipalities in other states, including parts of New York City. 

"Allowing limits on voting rights that disproportionately exclude minority voters would be inconsistent with our ideals as a nation," Attorney General Eric Holder said at a news conference Monday. "And it would not be in keeping with the proud tradition of democracy that North Carolinians have built in recent years."

The controversial North Carolina law, which was passed by the state legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in August, cuts seven days of early voting, imposes stringent voter-identification requirements and does away with same-day voter registration during early voting. Same-day registration allows voters to cast a ballot immediately after presenting elections officials with proof of identity and residence.

Holder said that more than 70 percent of African Americans who voted in North Carolina in 2008 and 2012 cast ballots during the early voting period. 

"The state legislature took extremely aggressive steps to curtail the voting rights of African-Americans," Holder said. "It defies common sense."

State Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis issued a statement that rejected Holder's argument. "The Obama Justice Department's baseless claims about North Carolina's election reform law are nothing more than an obvious attempt to quash the will of the voters and hinder a hugely popular voter ID requirement," they said.

"The law was designed to improve consistency, clarity and uniformity at the polls and it brings North Carolina's election system in line with a majority of other states," the two lawmakers said. "We are confident it protects the right of all voters, as required by the U.S. and North Carolina Constitutions."

Holder said he believes proof of voter fraud was "simply not there" and that the concerns are "something that is made up" in order to provide justification for the "unwarranted voter restrictions." 

North Carolina is among at least five Southern states adopting stricter voter-ID and other election laws. Republican lawmakers in Southern states insist the new measures are needed to prevent voter fraud, while Democrats and civil rights groups argue the tough new laws are intended to make voting more difficult for minorities, students and other voting groups that lean Democratic, in states with legacies of poll taxes and literacy tests.

MORE: Equal voting rights still a dream in NC?
Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty Images

The Justice Department challenge is aimed at a North Carolina provision eliminating the counting of certain types of provisional ballots by voters who cast ballots in their home counties but do not vote in the correct precincts.

The federal government will also challenge a provision in the new law that requires voters to present government-issued identification at the polls in order to cast ballots. In North Carolina, a recent state board of elections survey found that hundreds of thousands of registered voters did not have a state-issued ID. Many of those voters are young, poor, black or elderly.

The North Carolina law would require voters to show a photos ID, such as a valid driver’s license, state-issued ID from the Department of Motor Vehicles, U.S. passport or military ID in order to vote. 

Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, said one of the key points of contention with the North Carolina law is the "narrow class of laws" that will only accept a "handful" of laws to be able to vote at the polls. 

"This isn't a question of all voter ID is a problem, there is a particular class of laws that require a type of ID that many people don’t have," Gaskins told Al Jazeera. 

Gaskins said that such laws disproportionately affect “communities of color” and seniors because of circumstances that may include lack of access to vehicles or public transportation to offices that issue such IDs. 

The Justice Department will ask a federal judge to place four provisions in the state's new law under federal scrutiny for an indeterminate period — a process known as preclearance. The part of the Voting Rights Act that the Justice Department is invoking, however, may be a difficult tool for the Obama administration to use.

A handful of jurisdictions have been subjected to preclearance, or advance approval, of election changes through the Civil Rights Act provision it is relying on, but a court first must find that a state or local government engaged in intentional discrimination under the Constitution's 14th or 15th Amendment, or the jurisdiction has to admit to discrimination. Unlike other parts of the voting law, the discriminatory effect of an action is not enough to trigger court review.

The expected lawsuit against North Carolina comes after the Justice Department sued Texas on Aug. 22 over the state's voter-ID law and seeks to intervene in a lawsuit over redistricting laws in Texas that minority groups consider discriminatory.

In remarks to the Congressional Black Caucus on Sept. 20, Holder said the Justice Department would not allow the Supreme Court's ruling to be interpreted as "open season" for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights.

The Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (PDF) in June, saying the formula that served as the basis to subject certain jurisdictions to preclearance for changes in election laws was outdated because it was based on the racial discrimination of the 1960s. 

"Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically. Largely because of the Voting Rights Act, voter turnout and registration rates" in covered jurisdictions now approach parity," the court said in its decision. 

Philip J. Victor contributed to this report. With Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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