When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a crucial provision of the Voting Rights Act four years ago it was a heavy blow in a long war over voting rights. Now, even a hard fought victory for the NAACP in North Carolina is merely a preview for tougher voting rights battles ahead.
On Monday, the high Court declined to hear North Carolina’s appeal in the case of North Carolina v. North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP. In the beginning, the NAACP sued North Carolina for passing laws reducing the early voting period from 17 to 10 days, ending out-of-precinct voting, ending same-day voter registration and voting, ending preregistration by 16-year-olds, and requiring strict photo identification laws.
The NAACP argued the laws had a racially discriminatory impact and intent. However, North Carolina countered that it is only partisan politics, not racial discrimination. In North Carolina, as in the majority of States, nationwide, Republicans control the legislatures. This makes North Carolina an important marker for States enacting voter suppression laws based on claims of mere political, not discriminatory, motives. Meaning, if Republicans want to uncut the political power of Democrats, who happen to be African- Americans, it is legal political gerrymandering, and not a violation of racial discrimination laws.
In the North Carolina case, the NAACP lost at trial. They appealed and won at the appellate level. Then, North Carolina appealed to the Supreme Court. On M0nday, the Supreme Court rejected North Carolina’s appeal. In not hearing their case, the Court allowed the lower court’s decision to stand giving a victory to the NAACP. North Carolina cannot enforce those restrictive laws that would uncut voter access to the polls – for now. This North Carolina voter suppression case, like a case in Texas, changing polling places and enacting strict photo identification laws, followed the infamous Shelby County, AL v. Holder case of 2013 which struck down a major provision the Voting Rights Act of 1965 protecting African-Americans and other people of color from discriminatory voting laws like those passed by North Carolina and Texas.
The Voting Rights Act, initiated by President Lyndon Johnson, followed the deaths of civil rights workers and the violent beating of Black protesters in Selma, Alabama, referred to as Bloody Sunday in 1965. Back then, President Johnson demanded the preclearance provision to prevent States from enacting harmful laws in the future. Despite ongoing reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act by the Senate, the preclearance provision was struck down in 2013.
The preclearance provision would have required certain States and certain jurisdictions, with proven records of voter suppression, to ask the Federal government to review proposed changes to their voting laws before those changes could be enacted. If those changes would harm voting rights then the laws could not be enacted. The preclearance provision was considered the heart of the Voting Rights Act.
Within days of striking down the preclearance provision, Texas and North Carolina began to implement voter suppression laws. As an attorney, John Roberts worked on theories to end the preclearance provision. He wrote the opinion in the Shelby County case. Chief Justice Roberts wrote a two page opinion in the North Carolina case.
He made clear that the Court did not reject the North Carolina case based on its merits.
“Given the blizzard of filings over who is and who is not authorized to seek review in this Court under North Carolina law, it is important to recall our frequent admonition that “[t]he denial of a writ of certiorari imports no expression of opinion upon the merits of the case,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote.
This signals to Republican- controlled State legislatures that the Court will hear cases similar to this North Carolina case. “I think the right way to think about this is that North Carolina was a temporary victory in a very long war,” said Heather K. Gerken, an election law scholar at Yale University.
Gloria J. Browne- Marshall is the author of “The Voting Rights War: The NAACP and the Ongoing Struggle for Justice.” She is the U.S. Supreme Court correspondent for AANIC (African-American News & Information Consortium) and associate professor of constitutional a law at John Jay College (CUNY).