To Allison Riggs, a voting rights lawyer, North Carolina’s 1st Congressional District looks like an octopus with its arms stretched menacingly in all directions.
Each arm, Riggs says, sucks in black voters to pack them into the district and dilutes their voting strength in nearby districts -- “a cynical strategy to disenfranchise blacks.”
With Republicans adding the governor’s mansion last fall to their control, on top of the North Carolina Legislature, Riggs and other civil rights activists have counted on protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to prevent GOP geographical empire-building through redistricting. Nine states and parts of six others, including 40 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, were covered by a provision of the legislation that required federal approval of any changes in election laws.
But a U.S. Supreme Court decision Tuesday gutted the law, striking down the so-called preclearance provisions, and Republican leaders here already are revving up to push through voting procedure changes.
The GOP chairman of the state Senate rules committee, Sen. Tom Apodaca, said he would move quickly to pass a voter ID law that Republicans say would bolster the integrity of the balloting process. GOP leaders also began engineering an end to the state’s early voting, Sunday voting and same-day registration provisions, all popular with black voters. Civil rights groups say the moves are designed to restrict poll access by blacks, who vote reliably Democratic.
The moves are only the first indication that the ruling will have “a demonstrably negative impact on voters of color,” said Riggs, staff attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. The group already has a 2-year-old lawsuit pending that alleges racial discrimination in the 1st District and three dozen other North Carolina districts redrawn by Republicans.
Apodaca said the previous requirements for federal preclearance caused “legal headaches” in passing such measures as voter ID in response to legitimate concerns over voter fraud. It’s time, he told reporters, to bring the Voting Rights Act “into this century, not the last century.”
North Carolina NAACP President William J. Barber II, who has seen generations of black candidates elected thanks to the landmark civil rights-era law, objected to Apodaca’s dismissal of federal protections that had become part of the civil rights fabric of the South. “He refers to a law to undo 250 years of slavery and another 100 years or more of Jim Crow ... as a headache,” Barber said.
Rosanell Eaton, 92, remembers the humiliation for blacks who sought to cast ballots in North Carolina before the Voting Rights Act. In 1939, she said, she hitched a mule to a wagon and rode to the courthouse in Franklin County, N.C., to register. Three white men, probably illiterate, demanded that she recite the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.
Eaton, the valedictorian at her rural high school, recited the preamble word for word.
“They were so ignorant they didn’t know if I said it right or not -- but they registered me,” she said.
Last week’s Supreme Court decision “starts taking us right back to the old days,” she said. “Now it’s easier for these Republicans to do anything they want to us, without the controls we had.”
The Voting Rights Act changed the South by expanding black voting and black officeholders. In 1965, the 11 Southern states of the Confederacy had three black state legislators. By 2009, the number was 321 of 628 nationwide, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in his opinion last week noted that black voter registration in Mississippi was 6.4% in 1965, versus 7% today. But preclearance, he wrote, was “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”
The reverberations of the ruling already are being felt across the country. In Texas, the state attorney general said a voter ID law, held up by court challenges under the Voting Rights Act, will now be implemented. In Alaska, a state covered by the preclearance provision because of past discrimination against Alaska Natives, Republicans said a proposed voter ID law and redistricting efforts could now proceed more easily.
North Carolina’s 1st District, where Eaton voted before her neighborhood was moved in 2011 into a redrawn district won by a Republican, has elected black candidates since 1991. U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, an African American who has represented the district since 2004, said he would not have been elected without the Voting Rights Act because of “racially polarized voting -- a significant number of white voters refuse to vote for any African American candidate,” he said.
The lawsuit filed by Riggs’ coalition accuses Republicans of “racial gerrymandering” by packing blacks into the 1st District and other similarly concentrated districts to “segregate those voters and to reduce their proven ability to form cross-racial coalitions.” In 2012, Democratic congressional candidates won 51% of the vote in North Carolina, but Republicans won nine of 13 U.S. House seats.
(Democrats of course, did their own gerrymandering when they held power. In the 1990s, courts in North Carolina prohibited “racial gerrymandering” by Democrats who created largely black districts to facilitate the election of black candidates.)
Butterfield said Republicans carved out black enclaves in three counties within his district in 2011, but shifted the rest of the counties to adjacent districts “that became more white, more conservative and more Republican.” Without federal preclearance, he said, “people who want to engage in mischief now have a free hand to do it.”
The 1st District is now “an absurd shape, skinny and spindly,” Riggs said. It stretches for 7,200 square miles from the Inner Banks coastal lowlands to downtown Durham and Duke University in the center of the state. Much of the district lies in the soybean and tobacco farms of rural eastern North Carolina, but slender tentacles stretch to capture blacks concentrated in midsized cities. The district is 51% black and 44% white.
Pitt County in eastern North Carolina has also been a battleground. The Southern Coalition for Social Justice recently persuaded the Justice Department to block a state law that would in effect cut black representation from three seats to two on the county school board.
Since then, the state Legislature has introduced another proposal that would also cost one black seat on the board. With the Supreme Court decision, “it will be much more difficult, if not impossible, to obtain a remedy under the Voting Rights Act,” Riggs said.
The new moves by state officials to adopt ID requirements and other changes in the voting laws can have a critical impact on black voting strength, civil rights leaders say. Blacks represented 22% of North Carolina’s registered voters in 2012 but accounted for 34% of voters without a driver’s license or state-issued ID this year, according to Democracy North Carolina, a liberal advocacy group. It says blacks in 2012 made up 29% of early voters and 34% of same-day registration voters.
Since taking control in North Carolina, Republicans have passed or proposed legislation that Democrats say discriminates against minorities. This month, Republicans repealed the Racial Justice Act, passed by a Democratic Legislature and governor. The act allowed death row inmates to be re-sentenced to life in prison without parole if they proved racial discrimination in jury selection or sentencing.
Neither Sen. Apodaca nor the North Carolina Republican Party responded to requests for comment. Susan Myrick, a policy analyst with the Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank in Raleigh, said the court was correct in eliminating the preclearance section. She said it forced local officials to “go hat in hand in Washington, begging for permission” when they needed to change something as simple as moving a polling place or revising a ballot.
“Its time was over,” she said.