The Justice Department announced today that it intends to file a lawsuit against the State of North Carolina, the North Carolina State Board of Elections, and the Executive Director for the State Board of Elections over recent voting changes made by North Carolina House Bill 589, which was signed into law in August 2013. The United States' complaint challenges provisions of House Bill 589 under the non-discrimination requirements of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
"By restricting access and ease of voter participation, this new law would shrink, rather than expand, access to the franchise," said Attorney General Eric Holder. "Allowing limits on voting rights that disproportionately exclude minority voters would be inconsistent with our ideals as a nation. Whenever warranted by the facts and the law, the department will not hesitate to use the tools and legal authorities at our disposal to fight against racial discrimination, to stand against disenfranchisement, and to safeguard the right of every eligible American to cast a ballot."
The United States' complaint contends that at least four provisions of House Bill 589 were adopted with the purpose, and will have the result, of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. The complaint asks the court to prohibit North Carolina from enforcing these requirements, and also requests that the court order bail-in relief under Section 3(c) of the Voting Rights Act. If granted, this would subject North Carolina to a new preclearance requirement.
House Bill 589 imposes a number of restrictions on voting that will deny or abridge the right of minority voters to participate in the political process. Over the years, voter participation rates in North Carolina have steadily increased as the state adopted election practices and procedures that made voting more accessible to more voters. In the November 2008 and November 2012 general elections, for example, African-American voters dramatically increased their participation rates and heavily relied on early voting in North Carolina. In the November 2008 and November 2012 general elections, about 71 percent of all African Americans who cast ballots in North Carolina during those elections voted during the early voting period.
Although the prior system encouraged expanded voter participation, the state legislature chose in 2013 to adopt numerous barriers to voting and to eliminate voter-friendly practices. Additionally, the state waited to adopt many of these changes until after the Supreme Court's recent decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which held that certain jurisdictions, including 40 counties in North Carolina, were no longer required to obtain preclearance of voting changes prior to their implementation.
The complaint cites several provisions of House Bill 589. In particular, it cites: the elimination of the first week of early voting, which reduces the total number of days of early voting (from 17 days to 10 days); the elimination of same-day voter registration during the early voting period; the prohibition on counting certain provisional ballots; and the failure to provide adequate safeguards for voters who lack the limited types of acceptable photo identification cards that will be required in future elections. The first three changes are scheduled to take effect in 2014, and the last change will take effect in 2016.
Based on the state's own data, all four changes will have a discriminatory impact on minority voters, who disproportionately have relied on the first seven days of early voting, the same-day registration process and past practices regarding the counting of certain provisional ballots in order to participate in the elections process. In addition, the State Board of Elections released a report earlier this year showing that African-Americans disproportionately lacked photo identification cards issued by the state's Department of Motor Vehicles. Despite knowledge of this report, the legislature adopted a strict photo identification requirement that lacks the types of protections for voters without identification that are common in other states that require voter identification. Minority voters will disproportionately face obstacles and barriers to obtaining certain permitted photo identification cards that are now required to vote, and the State has failed to provide adequate protections to ensure that these voters will not be disenfranchised by the new law.
"The right to vote is one of the sacred rights that we hold dear as a nation," said Jocelyn Samuels, Acting Assistant attorney General for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. "The Department of Justice will use all the tools it has available to ensure that each citizen can cast a ballot free from discrimination. North Carolina adopted these changes in a rushed process, despite evidence before the legislators that a number of these changes will harm minority voters."
"The United States Attorneys for all three districts in North Carolina support today's action to protect the rights of all eligible North Carolinians to exercise the right to vote free from discrimination," said United States Attorney Ripley Rand of the Middle District of North Carolina. "Anne Tompkins of the Western District, Thomas Walker of the Eastern District and I will ensure that our respective offices provide whatever support and assistance is needed to pursue this important voting rights case."
If the federal court in this case finds that the State of North Carolina should be covered by Section 3(c), then the state would be required to submit voting changes to the U.S. Attorney General or to the federal court for review prior to implementation, to ensure that the changes do not have a discriminatory effect or a discriminatory purpose.
More information about the Voting Rights Act and other federal voting laws is available on the Department of Justice's website at www.justice.gov/crt/about/vot. Complaints about discriminatory voting practices may be reported to the Voting Section of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division at 1-800-253-3931.