Opinion

Why North Carolinians need to pay attention to Ohio's Voter Purge Law -- G.K. Butterfield

G.K. Butterfield represents the First Congressional District in Congress.
G.K. Butterfield represents the First Congressional District in Congress.

On the eve of the fifth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s devastating decision in Shelby County v. Holder (the landmark case that rendered the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unenforceable until amended by Congress), the Court earlier this week ruled on another significant case challenging Ohio’s voter purge law.

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision upheld an Ohio law that allows state officials to purge voters from the voter registration rolls who failed to vote in two consecutive federal election cycles and failed to respond to a notice delivered by mail.

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor correctly points out that the conservative majority upheld a law that has been shown to disproportionately disenfranchise low-income and minority voters. The statistics are stark: African-American neighborhoods in downtown Cincinnati had 10 percent of their voters purged due to inactivity since 2012 while only 4 percent of voters in a suburban, majority-white neighborhood were removed.

Voting-rights advocacy groups worry this decision will now green-light other states to implement similar voter purge laws that will limit the ability of eligible voters, especially low-income and minority voters, from exercising their right to vote.

The Ohio decision adds new fuel to the fire of voter suppression efforts nationwide.

In North Carolina, this ruling has the potential to prompt Republicans to pass additional voting laws that will disenfranchise low-income and minority voters as it has done over the past seven years.

Since gaining control of the General Assembly in 2011, North Carolina Republicans have unconstitutionally enacted both legislative and congressional maps that packed African-American voters into districts that diluted their voting strength in the adjoining districts. Republicans passed an unconstitutional voter ID law that according to federal judges “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

All of these discriminatory attempts were struck down by federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. Still, North Carolina Republican leaders remain unfazed.

Just last week, N.C House Speaker Republican Tim Moore introduced a bill to amend our state’s constitution to require photo identification in order to cast a ballot in future elections. If the bill passes, it will result in a statewide referendum in November when voters will be asked to make a decision despite the referendum containing no information on how the voter ID requirement would be implemented, whether or not there would be any exceptions, and what forms of identification would be valid to fulfill the requirement. All that would have to be resolved in other legislation that would be considered by the General Assembly only adding further uncertainty for North Carolina voters.

And this week, Republicans in the General Assembly introduced yet another bill that would disproportionately impact African-American voters in North Carolina. The bill would eliminate early voting on the last Saturday before Election Day. In 2016, nearly 200,000 North Carolinians cast ballots on the last Saturday before the election with African American voters making up nearly 29 percent of those ballots.

North Carolina has been down this ugly road before and we must not forgot that just a few years ago the very same Republican-led General Assembly attempted to make changes to state election laws, including a voter ID requirement and changes to early voting, that were found unconstitutional and discriminatory by a federal court.

We should not stand for another assault on low-income, elderly, and minority voters who cannot easily get identification and will be forced out of the political process by requiring them to have ID in order to exercise their franchise. North Carolina continues to be at the epicenter of this battle for equal access to the political process and North Carolinians must remain engaged and resist changes to our election laws that aim to limit the participation of certain voters.

This week’s Supreme Court decision further empowers those political leaders in states like Ohio and here in North Carolina who are working with such diligence to strip away the right to vote for millions of Americans. But it should also serve to galvanize partnerships across the nation to resist these attacks on our right to vote.

To that end, North Carolinians and all Americans should heed Justice Sotomayor’s call to action: “Communities that are disproportionately affected by unnecessarily harsh registration laws should not tolerate efforts to marginalize their influence in the political process, nor should allies who recognize blatant unfairness stand idly by. Today’s decision forces these communities and their allies to be even more proactive and vigilant in holding their States accountable and working to dismantle the obstacles they face in exercising the fundamental right to vote.”

Congressman G. K. Butterfield represents North Carolina’s First Congressional District. He currently serves as Vice Chair of the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus and is the immediate past Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Follow him on Twitter at @GKButterfield.

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