When the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that North Carolina had intentionally passed a law containing provisions making it harder for Black people to vote, the court probably thought it was sending the state a clear message: Stop discriminating.
North Carolina Republicans, however, don’t seem to be getting the point.
In a blistering opinion striking down provisions of the state’s law, the Fourth Circuit noted that “neither this legislature—nor, as far as we can tell, any other legislature in the Country—has ever done so much, so fast, to restrict access to the franchise.”
Even so, Republicans have evidently decided to bring the fight to the local level, taking advantage of the remaining provisions of the law.
In an email sent to GOP members of county elections boards last month, North Carolina Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse urged them to “make party line changes to early voting,” ones that are “supported by Republicans.” This included cutting early voting hours and refraining from putting polling sites on college campuses.
He even encouraged board members to get rid of voting on Sundays: “Many of our folks are angry and are opposed to Sunday voting for a host of reasons including respect for voter’s religious preferences, protection of our families and allowing the fine election staff a day off, rather than forcing them to work days on end without time off,” he wrote. “Six days of voting in one week is enough. Period.”
Some counties have been able to come up with bipartisan plans for early voting. Others, however, have taken Woodhouse’s words to heart.
According to the Charlotte News & Observer, of the 100 counties in North Carolina—all of which have Republican-led elections boards—the voting hours have already been reduced in 23. In addition, nine of the 21 counties that offered Sunday voting in 2012 voted to eliminate it. The 23 counties that voted to reduce early voting hours account for half of the state’s registered voters, according to the New York Times. (Elections boards in 70 counties voted to expand early voting hours, and 12 counties agreed to continue to offer Sunday voting hours.)
It’s hard to view this as anything other than a deliberate attempt to skirt the Fourth Circuit’s ruling. However, it is likely an unintended consequence of that ruling.
In 2013, the Republican-led legislature rushed to pass SL 2013-381 immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. The law contained a provision reducing the early voting period from 17 to 10 days. The legislature added, through an amendment proposed by one of the law’s opponents, a requirement that counties offer at least as many early voting hours as they offered during the 2012 election. Attorneys for North Carolina argued in court that the General Assembly added this provision in order to “reduce or eliminate any adverse affect the law might have on minorities.”
Early voting restrictions harm Black voters, who disproportionately use those methods. In its recent decision, the Fourth Circuit specifically reinstated North Carolina’s 17-day voting period on those grounds.
“[W]inning an election does not empower anyone in any party to engage in purposeful discrimination,” wrote Judge Diana Gribbon Motz for the unanimous panel. “When a legislature dominated by one party has dismantled barriers to African American access to the franchise, even if done to gain votes, ‘politics as usual’ does not allow a legislature dominated by the other party to re-erect those barriers.”
According to the court, that is exactly what Republicans in North Carolina tried to do.
Surprisingly, attorneys for North Carolina admitted as much in open court, when they argued that the “[c]ounties with Sunday voting in 2014 were disproportionately black” and “disproportionately Democratic.”
North Carolina’s solution to the “problem”—to pass a law that would eliminate one of the two days of Sunday voting—was the sign the court needed: “[I]n what comes as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times, the State’s very justification for a challenged statute hinges explicitly on race—specifically its concern that African Americans, who had overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, had too much access to the franchise,” wrote Judge Gribbon Motz.
Attorneys for North Carolina claimed that the legislature had enacted changes to early voting laws in order to avoid “political gamesmanship” with respect to the hours and locations of early voting centers.
But the political gamesmanship is all on the part of Republicans. The GOP has been unable to sway Black people to its side by proposing and supporting policies that would actually benefit them, so instead, they are gaming the system by reducing those reliably Democratic voters’ access to the franchise.
Since Republicans have been unable to convince meaningful numbers of Black people to vote for them, they resort to underhanded tactics that, as the Fourth Circuit noted, target Black voters with “almost surgical precision.”
However, when the Fourth Circuit, in an attempt to address that targeting, reinstated the 17-day early voting period, it nullified the requirement that counties offer at least the same number of voting hours as they did in 2012. As such, counties are free to offer fewer voting hours, and to eliminate Sunday voting if they choose. This is a loophole that the Fourth Circuit likely did not intend—but it’s one that some Republican election officials are happily exploiting. For example, in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina’s largest county and home to about one million residents, the county board voted to cut 238 early voting hours. In 2012, Obama won Mecklenburg County by 22 points, and 70 percent of Black voters in that county used early voting as opposed to 48 percent of white voters, according to an analysis by the Nation.
Of course, Republicans seldom own up to this tactic. As with voter ID laws, Republican election officials have raised the specious specter of voter fraud or other concocted excuses as thinly veiled justification for the dramatic reduction in early voting hours.
“Democrats are mobilizing for a fight over early voting locations and times. They are filling up election board meetings and demanding changes that are friendly to democrats [sic] and possibly voter fraud,” Woodhouse wrote in the memo he emailed to Republican elections board members. Woodhouse’s concern about voter fraud is dubious, considering it is extremely rare, and there’s no evidence of any voting fraud that might be preventing by reducing early voting hours.
The same goes for Woodhouse’s manufactured concerns about Sunday voting. In his memo, Woodhouse claimed that eliminating Sunday voting would protect families, voter’s religious preferences, and give election workers a day off.
But the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, which is suing the state over its oppressive law, has been very successful in organizing Sunday “souls to polls” drives in order to increase voter registration, education, protection, and voter turnout. It has even offered training earlier this year as part of a statewide It’s Our Time, It’s Our Vote GOTV campaign. Woodhouse surely knows that eliminating Sunday voting would eliminate this successful get-out-the-vote strategy and potentially keep Black people from the polls.
Woodhouse concluded: “Republicans should fight with all they have to promote safe and secure voting and for rules that are fair to our side.”
But rules like this that are “fair” to the Republican side are fair only insofar as they suppress reliably Democratic votes.
That’s what Republicans rarely admit.