The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit made a historic civil rights statement last week. Judge Diana Gribbon Motz’s unanimous decision invalidated North Carolina’s controversial voter law, that among other things, added impediments to voting including requiring certain types of so called “official” forms of voter identification before people could cast their ballot. The court enjoined enforcement of several provisions of the state law that it concluded stifled many Black voters from participating in the political process.
The North Carolina law, enacted shortly after the Supreme Court’s controversial 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, intentionally weakened voter rights protections put in place by President Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 Voting Rights Act. Judge Motz reasoned that the state (Republican controlled) generally assembly rushed this legislation right after the Shelby County decision to intentionally pass one of the “most restrictive voting rights laws since the Jim Crow era.” She determined that a lower federal court judge should not have upheld the state law. Rejecting the law as unconstitutional, her opinion concluded, that the state law was not race neutral, announcing that the trial judge “seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees.”
After judiciously examining the racially polarized nature of North Carolina voting traditions, she pointed out that the restrictive provisions “targeted African-Americans with…surgical precision.” The ruse by the North Carolina Republican controlled legislature in the alleged interests of voter accuracy, proposed “cures to problems that did not exist.”
Judge Motz’s opinion concluded that the state’s motivation was racial and discriminatory and that “the asserted justifications cannot and do not conceal the states true motivation.” The state took away minority voters opportunity simply because they “were about to exercise it.”
An example of the North Carolina Republican’s racially discriminatory motivation was the legislature’s nullification of the continued use of expired identifications in spite of such use previously being valid in prior elections. The court noted that African-Americans, who had been voting at a higher rate, subsequently experienced difficulty obtaining the type of government issued identification now required under the new law.
Judge Motz also noted that under the new restrictive voting laws, early voting dates were shortened. Such legislative action followed data requested by the legislature which showed African-American voters took advantage of early voting as a result of their inability to get to the polls on Election Day. This legislative change also eliminated one of the two “souls to the polls” Sundays in which African-American churches provided transportation to voters to help them cast their ballot.
Judge Motz described the “need to avoid voter fraud” rationale used by the state of North Carolina (Republicans) as justification for enacting the new restrictive voting laws as being “a solution in search of a problem.” This opinion shows the important need for judges to examine the details of discriminatory intention for purposes of using their equitable power to prevent implementing discriminatory laws. The court should be applauded for its courageous insight.
In addition to North Carolina, courts in North Dakota, Texas, Kansas and Wisconsin have within the past 30 days shown comparable disfavor to similar Republican enacted restrictive voting ID laws by striking them down. We can only hope this trend continues to banish forever such anti-democratic, unconstitutional illegal practices from our law books, thereby allowing all citizens broader unimpeded access to America’s ballot boxes.
José Felipé Anderson is a Professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and an Adjunct Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.