Supreme Court ruling on Voting Rights Act expected to affect NC

jmorrill@charlotteobserver.comJune 25, 2013 

— Tuesday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act could have far-reaching effects in North Carolina – affecting everything from voting districts to voter ID legislation.

“It looks like this is going to be a major decision that will impact North Carolina in some way, shape or form,” said Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer.

The court effectively struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Though it left intact Section 5, which gives the Justice Department special oversight over voting laws in some states, it nullified the formula on which that oversight is based.

The 5-4 decision drew strong criticism from Democrats.

President Barack Obama said he was “deeply disappointed.” U.S. Rep. Mel Watt of Charlotte, whose 12th District has been the subject of no less than four Voting Rights cases that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, said the ruling “leaves millions of Americans vulnerable to discrimination in the most fundamental right of citizenship – the right to vote.”

But many Republicans hailed the decision.

“It’s time to bring the Section 5 rulings into this century, not the last century,” said Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican who chairs the Senate Rules Committee.

Though Section 5 covers only 40 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, federal oversight has made itself felt across the state. Since 1981, the Justice Department has rejected North Carolina redistricting plans eight times.

The ruling’s most immediate impact could be felt in the expected passage of a new voter ID requirement in North Carolina.

“(It) should speed things along greatly,” Apodaca said.

Apodaca said a voter ID bill is expected to emerge from a Senate committee next week. The House already passed an ID bill along party lines.

Under Tuesday’s ruling, the bill apparently would no longer need Justice Department approval.

“It becomes law on passage and that should give everybody grave concern,” said Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Charlotte Democrat opposed to the legislation. Critics say it would primarily keep low-income voters from the polls.

But Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican who chairs the House elections committee, said any voter ID bill would be designed to withstand any legal challenges, even without Justice Department oversight.

“The voter ID bill and every other piece of election bills we passed were passed with the understanding that they could withstand challenges,” he said. “We continue to use the same care in drafting laws regardless of the outcome of the court case.”

Voting district challenge

Eddie Speas, a Raleigh attorney for one of two groups challenging current legislative and congressional voting districts, said he would file papers Wednesday on the basis of Tuesday’s high court ruling, as well as Monday’s decision on affirmative action that also involves race.

He argues that the 2011 redistricting plans – which helped Republicans gain control of the General Assembly and congressional delegation – are an unconstitutional gerrymander that reduces the influence of minority voters by concentrating them in certain districts.

A three-judge panel has been hearing arguments in the case.

Plan defenders say Republican mapmakers complied with the Voting Rights Act, and in fact designed the districts to get federal approval. The Justice Department approved, or pre-cleared, the districts in 2011.

Speas said Tuesday it appears the court rulings support his case. “It hurts the state’s case,” he said.

Attorney Tom Farr, representing the state, declined to comment on pending litigation.

Other challenges

Other voting measures, including a pending redrawing of Guilford County school districts, could be affected by the ruling. And the lack of federal oversight could be felt beyond what are clearly voting laws.

Until this week, a bill that would de-annex land in the small Pitt County town of Grifton would have required Justice Department approval. That’s because it would determine who votes where in one of the 40 North Carolina counties regulated under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

For that bill or others, the ruling still leaves the door open to legal challenges. But Michael Crowell, an expert on voting law with the University of North Carolina’s School of Government, said Tuesday’s action shifts the burden of proof.

“The burden was on the state to show it was not discriminating,” he said. “Now the burden is on the challenger.”

But state Sen. Dan Blue, a Wake County Democrat, said other parts of the Voting Rights Act, which were left intact by Tuesday’s ruling, should offer protection against discrimination.

Section 2 of the law, for example, says: “(No) voting qualification or prerequisite to voting or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State … in a manner which results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”

That section of the Voting Rights Act was the basis for several Supreme Court decisions that shaped voting districts and law in North Carolina.

“You still have a very vibrant Section 2 which is really where North Carolina has created the law over the last three decades,” Blue said.

Anne Blythe of the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.

Morrill: 704-358-5059

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