N.C. wants voting law emails kept secret

Naima Chahli votes on a proposed state constitutional amendment in Raleigh, N.C. on May 8, 2012.
Naima Chahli votes on a proposed state constitutional amendment in Raleigh, N.C. on May 8, 2012.

North Carolina is asking a federal judge to keep secret Republican state lawmakers’ communications as they pushed through the nation’s most restrictive voting law last summer.

“They are doing everything they can to try to keep us from finding out what they did and how they did it and who was involved," Rev. William Barber II, the president of the state’s NAACP chapter, which is challenging the law, told reporters Thursday. “It’s time for what was done in the dark to come into the light.”

Barber’s NAACP, backed by the Advancement Project, wants access to the lawmakers’ emails and other internal communications in order to bolster the case that the law’s Republican sponsors knowingly discriminated against racial minorities. In response, the state argued late last week that the communications are protected by legislative privilege.

In October, a GOP precinct chair resigned after saying that it would be OK if the law keeps "lazy blacks" from voting.

The spat comes as the civil rights groups add more claims to their lawsuit, which was originally filed in August. The U.S. Justice Department has filed its own lawsuit against the measure.

In new filings, the civil rights groups charge that the law discriminates against Latinos, not just African-Americans. And they challenge a provision of the law that scrapped a popular program allowing 16- and 17-year olds to pre-register to vote, arguing that the move is racially discriminatory because non-whites benefited from the program more than whites.

North Carolina’s voting law, signed into law last summer by Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, is the strictest in the country. It requires voters to present a limited range of government-issued photo IDs (student IDs aren’t allowed); cuts early voting; ends same-day voter registration; scraps the pre-registration program; bans paid voter registration drives; and makes it easier to challenge a voter’s eligibility, among other measures.

The law's sponsors moved ahead with the measure last summer after June's Supreme Court ruling that removed federal oversight from election changes made by most southern states. 

In their August filings, the civil rights groups argued that the voter ID provision, the early-voting cutbacks, and the end to same-day registration violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which bars racial discrimination in voting, and the 14th and 15th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

A wealth of evidence shows that non-whites are more likely than whites to lack ID, and to take advantage of early voting and same-day registration.

“When you look at all this together, it is, in fact, the worst voter suppression law since the days of Jim Crow,” Barber said Thursday.

The civil rights groups had said in a news advisory sent Wednesday that they would also be charging that the law violates the 24th Amendment’s ban on poll taxes. But Penda Hair, a co-director of the Advancement Project, said they no longer plan to make that claim.

Still, Hair said the groups view the photo ID provision as imposing a monetary cost on voters—despite the existence of free state IDs—because of the costs of acquiring the paperwork needed to obtain the ID. She said the plaintiffs might bring the poll tax charge in the future.

The voting law was just one component of an across-the-board rightward shift initiated by North Carolina Republicans after they took complete control of the state this year for the first time since Reconstruction.