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Lawsuit challenges North Carolina’s ‘full-on assault’ on voting rights

Activists say the state’s new voting restrictions unequally affect poor and minority voters

Voters’ rights groups in North Carolina are getting their last shot before 2014’s midterm elections to argue that a state law disproportionately disenfranchises poor, minority and young voters in the state.

In a suit filed by social justice groups — including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Advancement Project — and supported by the U.S. Justice Department, lawyers will argue in front of a federal judge on Monday that North Carolina’s new voting requirements are the most restrictive and discriminatory to be enacted in decades.

“This is the worst voter suppression law we have seen since the days of Jim Crow,” the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, told The Guardian. “It is a full-on assault on the voting rights of minorities.”

The law, passed last August by North Carolina’s Republican-majority legislature, was the first enacted in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in June 2013 that found key sections of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional.

The Voting Rights Act required states with a history of discrimination to have any changes to voting laws approved by the Justice Department. Federal law still prohibits changes to voting laws that discriminate against minorities, but because the Justice Department no longer has a say in those changes, outside groups say they've been forced to sue.

"In essence, we’re going to a federal court and asking them to do what the Justice Department used to do under the Voting Rights Act," said Anita Earls, executive director for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which is representing some of the plaintiffs in the suit.

The most controversial provision of North Carolina’s law — mandating that every person provide state-issued identification in order to vote — won’t go into effect until 2016. Opponents of that provision say minority groups and newly arrived immigrants are likely to be dissuaded from voting by the rule. They also suggest that it is no coincidence that those groups tend to vote Democratic.

A group of seven college students is arguing that the law violates the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, and said that the right of people over 18 to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.” The students say that requiring state identification unfairly targets college student who may be in the state temporarily but who are still residents.

Other provisions of the state’s law are already in effect, including a prohibition on same-day registration — a move that bars would-be voters from signing up to cast ballots on the day of an election.

Critics of the rule change say it disproportionately affects black voters.

In the 2012 presidential election, black voters accounted for less than 25 percent of the vote but made up more than 40 percent of same day registrants, according to the ACLU.

Under the North Carolina law, early voting has also been cut to 10 days, from 17. Black voters also make up a higher percentage of early voters, according to voting rights groups.

Under the state legislation, people will now be able to vote only within their precinct. In the past, voters could cast ballots outside their district — an allowance used by black voters more than twice as frequently as white voters, according to North Carolina Policy Watch.

And in a blow to the voting power of the young, 16- and 17-year olds will no longer be able to fill out forms that automatically register them to vote when they turn 18.

The law makes absentee voting easier by standardizing the voting forms needed and allowing nonprofits to hand out or mail absentee forms to voters. Data show that absentee voting tends to be used more by whites than blacks and more by Republicans than Democrats.

“Absentee balloting was made easier, and early voting and same-day registration were made harder. You can’t get any clearer evidence than that that they’re trying to make it more difficult for black people to vote," said Earls. “This bill was targeted very carefully.”

North Carolina’s Republican lawmakers have said the law is necessary to prevent voter fraud. The North Carolina State Board of Elections announced earlier this year that as many as 35,750 people who were registered in other states also voted in North Carolina, triggering fears that elections were being unfairly influenced by out-of-state activists. But some have questioned the accounting method behind that tally, saying most of those records are likely from people who have moved to North Carolina but had not yet had their old voter registrations nullified.

Now, arguing before U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder, voting rights groups will get their last chance before the midterm elections to temporarily block the provisions. If the block is successful, the groups will get a chance in 2015, with a different court case, to strike down the laws once and for all.

“At the hearing, we will show indisputable evidence that North Carolina voting law has a disparate impact on voters of color and will abridge the right to vote for people across the state,” Advancement Project co-director Penda Hair said during a press call last week. “We want to ensure that these voters’ stories can be heard now because so much is at stake if the law is not stopped.”

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