The Opinion Shop

Steve Ford: The racial twist to new NC election laws

Former N&O editorial page editor Steve Ford cites a new study in writing on the N.C. Council of Churches blog about the recent changes in North Carolina election laws. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s easy to imagine the response from legislative leaders to a new scholarly look at the impacts of North Carolina’s recent election law changes: “Get over it!”

Those same Republican legislators would be hard-pressed to argue that the changes won’t hold down vote totals among people who these days tend to vote Democratic. What the new study does is crunch the numbers to describe the disproportionate effect on voters who are African-American.

To many, including civil rights groups that are suing to try to block the changes, the study will seem to offer solid evidence of racial discrimination that should be impermissible under federal law and the Constitution. Of course that’s not how the legislative chiefs see it. They’d say, so what if they’ve tilted the scales a bit to make it harder on their partisan foes? Some court rulings suggest they’re allowed to do that.

Still, what remains for the courts to decide is whether it’s OK to use race as a proxy when the intent is to target the opposition party. The study by Michael C. Herron and Daniel A. Smith makes it clear that North Carolina’s new voter ID law and other related provisions can be expected to disadvantage black voters more than white.

The dispute has the hallmarks of a partisan dogfight. At the same time, whenever laws are tilted against the interests of a group that’s identifiable by race, larger issues of justice come into play. That’s especially so in a state and country where discrimination against African-Americans, even brutal discrimination, was long a tragic part of the social landscape. During the painful decades of Jim Crow, it was in fact racists in the Democratic Party who tightened their hold on power throughout the South by keeping blacks from voting.

Making it marginally harder or less convenient for black citizens to vote obviously doesn’t rank with the kinds of repression inflicted upon them in years past. But it hampers their ability to speak through the ballot box, and thus to help shape the political discourse in line with their interests and preferences.

The likely upshot: fewer laws and policies intended to further opportunity for citizens who too often find themselves outside the American dream, looking in.

Read the rest here.