by Scott Mooneyham
RALEIGH — The lawsuit came as no surprise.
Just two months earlier, the U.S. Justice Department had sued to stop a voter ID law passed in Texas in 2011. In doing so, federal officials said that other lawsuits were likely.
North Carolina legislators had just passed their own voter ID law, filled with other provisions also affecting elections, that caused national figures like Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell to take note.
Clinton told a group of lawyers that the law “reads like a greatest hits of voter suppression.” Powell, while speaking to an audience in North Carolina, said that the law punishes minority voters and that states should make voting easier, not more difficult.
So, the reference to more lawsuits pretty much let everyone know that North Carolina’s law was in the crosshairs of the Obama administration.
On Monday, the lawsuit was filed. It alleges that the law discriminated against minority voters.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder cited several provisions of the law that he said made it discriminatory, including changes to early voting and a ban on counting votes made outside of precincts in races not affected by those particular precinct lines. He said the changes amounted to “extreme, aggressive steps” to curtail the voting rights of African-Americans.
Legislative leaders responded with a joint statement that called the Justice Department claims “baseless.” House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger went on to say that the lawsuit is “an obvious attempt to quash the will of the voters and hinder a hugely popular voter ID requirement.”
Of course, if state lawmakers had stuck to voter ID requirements modeled on other state laws that have already survived court scrutiny, they would not be in their current situation.
Instead, they passed a voter ID requirement that does not allow for college IDs, opening themselves to criticism that they want to discourage voting by younger voters, who skew Democratic.
The decision to make the legislation a 57-page, kitchen-sink elections bill — cutting down on early voting days, dropping early registration of teens prior to their 18th birthday, and weakening donor disclosure rules — paved more avenues for legal challenges.
I suspect that Republican legislators see partisan designs in a lot of the earlier elections law that they have repealed, changed, or otherwise questioned.
Did Democrats, when they controlled the legislature and approved no-excuse early voting, believe that Democratic voters might avail themselves to early voting more than Republicans? Probably.
Did Democrats, when they ended partisan judicial races (not a subject of the election law changes), believe that their party would benefit? Definitely.
None of that changes the fact that this latest law has the overall effect of curbing access to voting by legitimate, eligible voters.
When the case goes to court, no reasonable argument can be made to dispute that, even as the discriminatory effects are debated.
Republican lawmakers may not like it, but curbing access for partisan advantage has a distinctly different ring than enhancing access, even if for the same purposes.
—Scott Mooneyham covers the state legislature for the Capitol Press Association