In reporting that North Carolina is likely to enact a voter ID law that was vetoed by the former governor, the Associated Press failed to acknowledge the relationship between Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and photo requirements that threaten the right to vote. Federal courts have found voter ID laws with photo requirements to be impermissible under Section 5, which bars states with a history of racial discrimination from changing election practices absent federal review.
Voter ID is a top priority for North Carolina Republicans, who gained control of both executive and legislative branches during the November state elections. Although the AP noted the opposition to this legislation, it reported it as a partisan counterargument:
[New Republican Governor] Pat McCrory and Republican legislative leaders pledged that if elected, they would undo vetoes from Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue that GOP legislators could not override because they lacked enough votes.
At the top of the list was the 2011 bill requiring voters to show photo identification to cast ballots in person.
North Carolina Republicans have said they wanted the photo ID requirement to ensure the integrity of elections and discourage voter fraud. But Democrats and civil rights groups have accused Republicans of passing voter ID because many people who don't have photo identification - the poor and minorities - disproportionately vote Democratic. They say that fraud is extremely rare and that photo ID would erode voting rights expanded over the past 50 years.
The extreme rarity of in-person voter fraud is a fact, not just a Democratic rebuttal to the types of voter ID laws recently proposed by state Republicans across the country. Furthermore, federal judges who examined these laws under the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in the run-up to the 2012 elections issued extensive findings that these laws can impermissibly disenfranchise voters of color. Nevertheless, the AP reported these points as partisan opinion, in the same fashion it commented that "Democrats and civil rights groups" maintain photo ID laws "erode voting rights expanded over the past 50 years."
Voting rights have been protected for the past 50 years because of the VRA, historic civil rights legislation that the AP did not mention. Section 5 of the VRA, which requires that changes to election practices - such as photo voter ID laws - by states with a history of racial discrimination first be reviewed and approved by the Department of Justice or a federal court, has been indispensable. Judges have noted this key role of Section 5 in fighting Jim Crow in opinions that halted impermissibly discriminatory voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas, a history referenced by former North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue when she vetoed the voter ID law North Carolina Republicans are now poised to pass.
The relationship between Section 5 of the VRA and North Carolina is especially relevant because the state is partly covered by the provision, and was the source of a right-wing challenge to the law in Nix v. Holder. The Supreme Court accepted a similar challenge from Alabama, Shelby County v. Holder, and oral arguments on the fate of Section 5 are scheduled for February 27.
A full understanding of why voter ID is legally problematic, especially in North Carolina, is impossible without discussion of Section 5. Putting the North Carolina version in context is especially important for the media now that those states challenging the constitutionality of Section 5 before the Supreme Court are also challenging the findings that their election practice changes illegally discriminated on the basis of race.
As the North Carolina voter ID law proceeds legislatively, the AP must discuss this clear overlap between those who continually push flawed voter ID laws and those who seek to do away with one of the most effective civil rights laws in American history. The stakes are high nationally, and certainly for North Carolina, as State Board of Election data show that nearly one in ten voters may be disenfranchised by the proposed photo voter ID law.