To the list of horribles delivered upon North Carolinas good name by this current crop of Republicans now can be added the humiliation of being sued by the federal government for curtailing the voting rights of blacks.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, in announcing the lawsuit Monday, said he took the action more in sorrow than in anger. And a sad occasion it was for a state justly proud of its progress in civil rights to be returned to the battlefield of federal enforcement and Southern state resistance. North Carolina has been taken there by the GOP leadership in the General Assembly and a Republican governor whose laws and policies are taking the state backward on many fronts, including taxation, education funding, abortion rights, environmental protection, health insurance for the working poor and support for the unemployed.
But this instance of rewinding history is particularly sensitive and damaging. Among North Carolinas greatest achievements stands the ability of its people and its government to rise beyond the prejudice of the Jim Crow era and the poll taxes and literacy tests that marked it.
After that period of voting restrictions, North Carolina developed a system that encouraged voting by all. It adopted early voting, same-day registration and pre-registration for 16- and 17-years-olds and did not require that voters present a photo ID. As a result, North Carolina rose from the bottom 12 states for voter turnout during all of the 20th century to 22nd in 2008 and 11th in 2012, a modern record high for North Carolinia.
That election process was good enough to sweep Republicans into large majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly and to elect the first Republican governor in 20 years, but Republicans worried that it was too good to keep them there. They sought ways to make voting harder for groups that disproportionately vote Democratic, and they wrapped every gambit into a bill that Gov. Pat McCrory signed, saying it was all about common sense safeguards to protect the election process.
The problem is that the election process it protects is the process of electing Republicans. It eliminates straight-ticket voting, cuts early voting by a week, repeals same-day registration and bars voters who show up at the wrong precinct from casting a provisional ballot. And, of course, it requires every voter to present a photo ID from a narrow list that excludes student IDs. The voting ID requirement, which takes effect in 2016, is considered one of the most restrictive in the nation.
Voters already provide identification when they register. There is no need for an ID at the polls. Impersonating another voter is already a felony, and instances are so rare as to be insignificant. It is wrong to impose extra restrictions on the right to vote. There is no mention in the Constitution of proving who you are at the polls.
Still, its hard to make the philosophical case against voter ID. Showing ID at the polls seems natural enough to most people. About 70 percent of North Carolinians favor it. But they do not favor what else Republicans stuffed into the voter ID bill. Lawmakers waited until the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act and rushed through a bill packed with changes that will disproportionately affect young people and minorities, groups that tend to vote Democratic. The bill did nothing to restrict mail-in absentee voting, a process more often used by Republicans.
Blacks make up 22 percent of North Carolinas population, but in the 2012 election they accounted for 29 percent of those who voted early in-person and 34 percent of the same-day registrations by people voting for the first time in a county. And of the 318,600 registered voters who, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, do not appear to have North Carolina drivers licenses or DMV IDs, 34 percent are black. The changes in the voting law affect black voters to a disproportionate extent. That was the intent.
Now the U.S. Department of Justice has lent its power to complaints filed by others over this bald attempt at voter suppression. If they can win, so will North Carolina.