Voter turnout is one of the most closely watched aspects of every election. All eyes were on Iowa at the beginning of February, where the crowds turning out to caucus in the presidential primary were called “robust, record-setting and surprising” by the Des Moines Register. But as essential as voter participation is to American democracy, thousands of eligible voters may be prevented from voting this election year. On the same day as the Iowa primary, a team of lawyers in a North Carolina federal courtroom closed its case, North Carolina NAACP v. McCrory, against a restrictive new voter identification law.
If the North Carolina law is upheld, civil rights advocates across the country believe it will make voting harder in particular for minorities in the upcoming presidential race, and give a green light to other states that are considering restrictive new voting rules. North Carolina’s law, which went into effect on January 1, cuts early voting, ends same-day registration, and introduces strict voter ID requirements. “We believe that the legislature intentionally passed a law that would discriminate against African Americans and Latinos, and potentially one of the reasons is the rising electorate and more participation by people of color,” said Donita Judge, a senior attorney for the Advancement Project.
The Advancement Project, a Carnegie Corporation grantee, is a civil rights group that is representing the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, and fighting alongside the Department of Justice to repeal the law that requires citizens to present a state-issued photo ID before they can vote. Advancement Project co-director Penda D. Hair, said in her closing argument, “For voters with fewer resources, lower education levels and less access to transportation, overcoming the barriers associated with getting a DMV ID has been impossible for many and has imposed and will continue to impose enormous costs in terms of time and money on those who do overcome it.”
Hair argued that “African Americans and Latinos experience a ‘double whammy’ of first lacking IDs more than Whites and second, facing more difficulty obtaining a qualifying ID.” Ninety-four-year-old Rosanell Eaton, a key witness in the case, testified that because the name on her driver’s license didn’t exactly match her voter registration, she had to make 10 trips to the DMV, drive more than 200 miles, and waste more than 20 hours to clear up the matter last year. Not everyone will have her civic drive or resources. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, more than 300,000 North Carolinians lack a government-issued ID, with African American and Latino citizens more likely than whites to be without the required documentation, or the means to acquire it.
State lawmakers, on the other hand, describe the law as a measure to prevent voter fraud. But voter fraud is extremely rare according to most political scientists. Lorraine Minnite, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and an expert witness, told the court that between 2000 and 2014, the North Carolina State Board of Elections referred just two cases of in-person voter fraud to county prosecutors. Not even three years after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the “preclearance” requirement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, in Shelby County v. Holder; the North Carolina case is testing the VRA’s diminished protections. A verdict is expected before the end of February, but similar fights are unfolding in 15 more states where restrictive new voting laws will go into effect before the 2016 election.
In North Dakota, for example, seven members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa also filed suit in January against their state, under the Voting Rights Act. North Dakota disqualified passports and tribal IDs as identification, insisting that acceptable IDs must be printed with a current residential address. Some Native American citizens like Richard Brakebill, a U.S. Navy veteran, went to the polls in 2014, and were turned away because their tribal IDs didn’t include an address. If they could not get a new ID that day, they were essentially disenfranchised.
The Colorado-based Native American Rights Fund (NARF),along with several law firms, is arguing that the new rules are unconstitutional and “disproportionately burden and disenfranchise Native Americans who live on reservations that don’t have street addresses. A significant number of reservation residents also don’t have drivers’ licenses. NARF, a Carnegie grantee, recently won an important voting-rights agreement in Alaska requiring the state to provide greater language assistance to voters who speak Alaska Native languages.
Today’s voting rights battles stem from the country’s shifting demographic balance. According to the Pew Research Center, African American and Latino voters now making up 31% of eligible voters up from 29% during the last presidential election. The spread of increasingly strict voter identification laws is raising concerns about voter suppression and inequality. A new study released in January by researchers at University of California, San Diego and Bucknell University, and supported by the Russell Sage Foundation, shows that the proliferation of voter ID laws drives down minority voter turnout. According to the paper, titled “Voter Identification Laws and the Suppression of Minority Votes,” a strict ID law can depress Latino turnout by 9.3 points, Black turnout by 8.6 points, and Asian American turnout by 12.5 points. Our multiethnic democracy can only be stronger when more citizens, not fewer, participate in elections. If these new voter ID laws are, indeed, suppressing the turnout and biasing the outcome of elections then, fifty years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, our democracy is again, seriously at risk.