There is no better evidence that the Voting Rights Act is still needed to protect equal access for minorities to the ballot box than the examples of North Carolina and Texas. Both states put in place new rules adversely affecting minority voters soon after the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the law's chief enforcement tool. The Justice Department announced last week that it was suing North Carolina, just as it sued Texas over its voting changes in August. This aggressive litigation strategy is the best approach left to challenging voter suppression in the states.
Under the guise of protecting the integrity of elections, Republican-controlled states such as North Carolina and Texas have made it harder to vote. There is no widespread voter fraud problem in the United States, but it's a convenient excuse when a state chooses to erect hurdles to voting that unfairly impact poor, minority voters who lean Democratic.
Among the four provisions of North Carolina's new voting law being challenged is a strict voter identification law that requires a photo ID. But it can't be a student ID, a public-employee ID or an ID issued by a public assistance agency. All are types of identification that Democratic-leaning constituencies would carry. State statistics show that African-American voters are disproportionately more likely not to have identification from the state's motor vehicle department, an acceptable ID.
Other harmful provisions in the North Carolina law include the elimination of the first week of early voting, the ending of same-day voter registration during early voting and the rejection of provisional ballots when a voter casts a ballot in the wrong precinct. A voter ID law in Texas is also being challenged by the department.
This kind of mischief was fairly predictable after the five Republican-appointed justices on the U.S. Supreme Court concluded in June that the preclearance formula was outdated and tossed it. That meant nine states, mostly in the South, and parts of six others, including five counties in Florida — Hillsborough, Collier, Hendry, Hardee and Monroe — would no longer have to submit voting changes to the Justice Department or a panel of federal judges for prior approval and demonstrate that minority voters were not adversely affected.
There is hope that the Justice Department's litigation strategy will breathe life back into the preclearance requirement, but the cases won't be slam dunks. If the department can show that a state was intentionally discriminatory, new preclearance requirements on any future changes would be put in force. The bulk of the evidence against strict voter ID rules and other limits on voting is that they have a discriminatory impact on minorities. Intent is harder to show.
The Obama administration is doing what it can to temper the impact of the Supreme Court's disappointing opinion. There is no more important right in a democracy than the right to equal ballot access.