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North Carolina voter law could put 29,000 ballots at risk, report says

As a federal court weighs challenges to to North Carolina's voting laws, a review of election data by Reuters suggests the 2013 law has impacted minority voters.

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    A voter peels off an "I Voted" sticker after voting in North Carolina's presidential primary in March at Sharon Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C. Three years after the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act, changes to North Carolina's voting laws could impact 29,000 ballots in this year's election, a Reuters analysis finds.
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Three years ago, a Supreme Court decision that curtailed parts of the Voting Rights Act spurred a still-contentious debate about whether state laws were restricting many people, particularly minority voters in the South, from casting their ballots.

Now, as a federal appeals court considers whether to uphold changes to North Carolina's voting rules, which are backed by Republican lawmakers, a new report suggests those 2013 changes could have an impact on this year's presidential election.

As many as 29,000 ballots might not be counted if the court upholds those rules, according to a Reuters review of state election board data. The analysis assumes North Carolinians will vote in similar numbers and ways as in recent years. 

While laws about voter ID have drawn more controversy, Reuters suggests that North Carolina's rules barring out-of-precinct voting and same-day voting during the early voting period could have a larger effect in the state, often considered an election battleground.

The findings seem to bolster the Justice Department's contention that the law has had a disproportionate impact on minority voters, or what it calls a "race-based purpose."

Some studies have shown that minority and low-income voters are more likely to use provisions allowing for same-day registration during early voting and out-of-precinct voting because they are less likely to own a car or have flexible working hours, the Department argues.

"If you pick out precisely the way minority voters are engaging with the process, that's intentionally treating minority voters differently," Justin Levitt, the head of the Justice Department's voting unit, told Reuters.

The laws' defenders, however, have often pointed to increasing minority turnout in elections as evidence that the laws are not discriminatory.

"Back in 1965, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was necessary to overcome the never-ending mischief that election officials employed to keep African-Americans from registering and voting. But those days are long gone," Edward Blum, a legal strategist whose conservative group, the Project on Fair Representation, successfully challenged the Voting Rights Act in a 2013 Supreme Court case, wrote in a US News column

In that case, the Supreme Court struck down a key requirement of the Voting Rights Act, which required nine states and other counties and cities with histories of discrimination to secure federal approval to change their election laws. 

But in a stinging dissent, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that getting rid of that provision "is like throwing away your umbrella because you are not getting wet."

Lawmakers who back North Carolina's changes also argue that the rules are necessary to prevent voter fraud, an idea for which researchers have found little evidence, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in April.

That debate may have impacted a federal district judge's decision that month to uphold the changes to the state's voting rules, some observers have said.

"Judge Schroeder could well be faced with a situation where plaintiffs have trouble proving the law will have a large discriminatory effect on African-American voters, but also ample evidence that North Carolina had no good antifraud reason or voter confidence reason for passing this law," wrote Richard Hasen, an election law expert who teaches at the University of California at Irvine, in a column for The Washington Post last year.

In October 2014, Justices Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor also dissented in a 7-2 Supreme Court ruling that upheld the restrictions on same-day and out of-precinct voting in North Carolina.

That high court decision reversed one from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which will now rule again on the Justice Department’s challenge to the voting rules. That ruling is expected in the next few weeks, Reuters reports.

But the wire service’s findings appear to show that North Carolina's rules have already impacted minority voters.

In Durham County, which has a minority population of 57.8 percent, there were two votes from outside the precinct where the voter lived that went uncounted in 2010. In 2014, there were 105, Reuters found. In Robeson County, with a minority population of 73.4 percent, one vote went uncounted in 2010, compared to 66 in 2014.

What happens in North Carolina, and with a similar challenge to Texas' laws, could also have a larger impact, Professor Hasen told the Post in April.

"North Carolina and Texas are the leading cases, and how they end up will have a big effect on the country as a whole," he said. "The stakes are very high. If North Carolina ultimately succeeds, you will see other states with Republican legislatures pass similarly restrictive voting laws."

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