Myths about voter ID are reemerging in the wake of a federal judge's ruling against the government in North Carolina, a voting rights case right-wing media characterized as a “huge loss” for the Obama Administration, despite the fact that the decision is preliminary and the government has prevailed in similar cases in other states.
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, a provision that required states with a history of suppressing the minority vote to pre-clear changes to their election laws with the Department of Justice or a federal court. Almost immediately after the decision in Shelby County, states that had been subject to the preclearance requirement, like North Carolina, began passing and implementing strict voter ID laws, an expensive fix to a problem that is essentially non-existent. Nevertheless, unnecessarily restrictive and redundant voter ID laws have become a favorite policy proposal for conservatives and right-wing media.
A recent order denying DOJ's request for a preliminary injunction against North Carolina's new voter ID requirements -- part of the "country's worst voter suppression law" -- has now given right-wing media a fresh opportunity to dredge up old misinformation about the legal struggle over these measures. Frequent National Review Online contributor Hans von Spakovsky, a vocal proponent for oppressive voter ID laws and questionable election procedures, called it “a huge loss” for Attorney General Eric Holder and the DOJ, and claimed that the judge “simply shreds the arguments by the DOJ” in the opinion:
Judicial Watch filed an expert report in the case through an amicus brief that showed that in the May 2014 primary election, black turnout was up an astounding 29.5 percent compared with the last midterm primary election in May 2010. White turnout was up only 13.7 percent. As Judicial Watch said, these results were “devastating to the plaintiffs' cases because they contradict all of their experts' basis for asserting harm.”
[T]his is a significant blow to DOJ and other opponents of commonsense election reforms.
That is particularly true when one remembers that this is DOJ's second big loss in the Carolinas. South Carolina attorney general Alan Wilson beat DOJ in 2012 when a federal court threw out a claim that South Carolina's voter-ID law was discriminatory. That law is in place today -- and there is a high probability that North Carolina's voter-ID requirement will also be in place in 2016 for the next presidential election.
Despite the fact that this ruling was only a preliminary matter -- the judge also denied North Carolina's motion to dismiss the lawsuit outright, and the voter ID requirement would not go into effect before the 2016 elections -- von Spakovsky celebrated the decision as emblematic of the constitutionality of voter ID in general, rather than a context-specific opinion on this particular state law. Conflating the propriety of all voter ID laws with individual decisions that uphold state-specific ones is a common tactic of right-wing media. So too is arguing that increased turnout is indicative of a lack of voter suppression, a logical fallacy that has been widely derided as a failure of “Statistics 101.”
Unfortunately, these right-wing myths can reach beyond traditional conservative outlets. Writing for the Daily Beast, Republican strategist and former Dick Cheney staffer Ron Christie claimed that the judge “sharply rebuked” the Obama administration and that the ruling was “an embarrassing defeat” for the DOJ, who he complained was “stuck in 1965.” Christie went on to argue that the DOJ's decision to fight against restrictive voter ID laws was a “cynical strategy ... clearly aimed at scaring black voters to support Democrats in November” while repeating the claim that the “surge” in black voters in North Carolina proved that the DOJ's lawsuit was a case of “the president, and [Holder's] Democratic supporters [doing all they] can to cynically divide the country for electoral gain and power at the expense of exploiting racism that doesn't exist.”
Von Spakovsky's reference to the South Carolina voter ID law is also misleading -- while it is true a federal court upheld that law, the judges in that case specifically pointed out that the law could be implemented in racially discriminatory ways and it was only being approved conditionally. Writing for the majority, conservative Judge Brett Kavanaugh noted that “local officials must comply with [the voter ID law] as it has been interpreted by the responsible state officials and as it has been described and adopted in this opinion. Any change in the law as so interpreted would be unlawful ... We are fully aware, moreover, that what looks good on paper may fall apart in practice.”
In any event, it is strange that both von Spakovsky and Christie heralded the preliminary injunction in the North Carolina case as a “rebuke” of the DOJ, all while ignoring the fact that a federal court in Wisconsin recently struck down that state's voter ID as unconstitutional in light of its discriminatory effects and the continued lack of evidence of the voter fraud these laws are supposed to prevent. As The Nation's Ari Berman reported, courts are increasingly finding the "election integrity" arguments of voter suppression proponents suspect, not those of the DOJ. As explained by Berman, the Wisconsin decision was significant because:
1. It's the most comprehensive opinion yet detailing the case against voter ID laws and the paucity of evidence to justify them.
2. It's part of a broader trend striking down new voter restrictions -- Wisconsin is the fifth state where voter ID laws have been invalidated in court. “These laws, when they get seriously tested, don't survive in court,” says [ACLU voting rights project director Dale] Ho. The Supreme Court upheld Indiana's voter ID law in 2008, but since then legal and public skepticism of voter ID laws and related restrictions has increased considerably.
Photo via Flickr/Bettina Neuefeind under a Creative Commons License.