WASHINGTON — North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory blasted back Monday at U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Justice Department challenging North Carolina's tough new elections law.
The lawsuit, which was filed Monday afternoon, is the latest effort by the Obama administration to fight back against a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the most powerful part of the landmark Voting Rights Act and freed Southern states from strict federal oversight of their elections.
North Carolina's new law, which was adopted last month, scales back the period for early voting and imposes stringent voter identification requirements.
"I believe the federal government action is an overreach and without merit," McCrory said at a news conference. "I think it's obviously influenced by national politics since the Justice Department ignores similar laws in other (Democratic-leaning) blue states."
"(This) action is about far more than unwarranted voter restrictions; it's really about our democracy and who we are as a nation," Holder said at a news conference, adding the the lawsuit was being filed "more in sorrow than in anger.
"The state legislature took extreme aggressive steps to curtail the voting rights of African-Americans," Holder said. "This is an intentional attempt to break a system that was working, and it defies common sense."
Republican legislative leaders criticized the lawsuit, calling Holder's statements "baseless claims" designed to "quash the will of (North Carolina) voters."
"The law was designed to improve consistency, clarity and uniformity at the polls and it brings North Carolina’s election system in line with a majority of other states. We are confident it protects the right of all voters, as required by the U.S. and North Carolina Constitutions," House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a statement.
Lawmakers declined further comment on the issue, citing the pending lawsuit.
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper has expressed reservations about the legislation and last month urged McCrory to veto it. The governor responded by saying Cooper was providing a political opinion, not a legal one.
On Monday, Cooper's office said he would defend the state in any federal suit.
McCrory said he was disappointed by the lawsuit, saying it would only cost taxpayers to pay for both the prosecution and defense. The state has hired outside lawyers to work with the Attorney General's Office and General Assembly lawyers to defend the law.
North Carolina is among at least five Southern states adopting stricter voter ID and other election laws. The Justice Department on Aug. 22 sued Texas over that state's voter ID law and is seeking to intervene in a lawsuit over redistricting laws in Texas that minority groups consider to be discriminatory.
Republican lawmakers in Southern states insist the new measures are needed to prevent voter fraud, though such crimes are infrequent. Democrats and civil rights groups argue the tough laws are intended to make voting more difficult for minorities and students, voting groups that lean toward Democrats, in states with legacies of poll taxes and literacy tests.
Jocelyn Samuels, who heads up the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said that history is part of the "ample evidence" that prosecutors will present to show that North Carolina legislators crafted the new law to discriminate against minority voters. Holder also noted that the law was passed less than a month after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in an Alabama case.
The government is challenging the early-voting period being cut from 17 to 10 days and the elimination of same-day voter registration during the period. Same-day registration allows voters to cast a ballot immediately after presenting elections officials with proof of their name and home address.
Holder noted that more than 70 percent of the votes cast by blacks in North Carolina in the 2008 and 2012 were cast during the early-voting period.
The lawsuit also challenges a provision eliminating the counting of certain types of provisional ballots by people who vote in their home counties but not in the correct precincts. Also, it contends that the provision requiring voters to present government-issued identification at the polls in order to cast ballots is discriminatory.
A recent State Board of Elections survey found that hundreds of thousands of registered voters did not have a state-issued ID. Many of those voters are young, black, poor or elderly.
Holder said he has no problem with ensuring that people who vote are entitled to vote, but he said North Carolina's law went far beyond Republican lawmakers' stance that they were out to prevent voter fraud. Cutting back on early voting and preventing 16- and 17-year-olds from registering to vote have nothing to do with voter fraud, he said.
"The question is what kind of identification (is acceptable) and what is the impact of a change in identification laws," he said. "This law, we think, will have a disproportionate negative impact on minority voters."
The North Carolina chapter of the NAACP has filed suit to block the changes to state election laws, and chapter President Rev. William Barber said Monday that he is pleased the federal government also is questioning the voter fraud argument used to advance the legislation.
"This bill is not about voter ID requirements," Barber said during a news conference. "This is about voter suppression. This is about fundamentally rewriting and restructuring voting rights and access to voting for citizens across this state."
McCrory noted that 34 states require some form of ID to vote, and 37 states deny same-day registration for voting.
"North Carolina is in the mainstream on this issue, and it's the Justice Department that's working in the fringes," he said. "I firmly believe we've done the right thing. I believe this is a good law."
Chris Brook, legal director for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the shorter early-voting period and the elimination of same-day registration particularly hurt low-income voters. The ACLU has sued to block those provisions.
"North Carolina has made tremendous progress in recent years in improving ballot access and increasing voter turnout, but much, if not all, of that progress will be lost if this new law goes into effect," Brook said in a statement. "For many voters, especially low-income voters, the choice is between early voting or not voting at all."
Bob Hall, executive director of voting rights watchdog Democracy North Carolina, said the Republican-written legislation ignores problems with mail-in absentee voting to target issues that would disproportionately affect groups that tend to vote Democratic.
"Republican lawmakers had clear evidence that their proposals would harm African-American voters more than white voters, yet they intentionally chose to adopt those provisions. They had no evidence of significant fraud caused by voter impersonation or out-of-precinct voting, yet they imposed new restrictions anyway," Hall said in a statement.
Barber called the compilation of changes to North Carolina's campaign and election laws "the worst of everything."
"This is a fight about how our democracy works," he said of the lawsuits over the changes. "This is not some simple discussion about voter ID."
The Justice Department plans to ask a federal judge to place the four provisions in North Carolina's law under federal scrutiny for an indeterminate period – a process known as pre-clearance. However, the provision of the Voting Rights Act that the Justice Department is invoking may be a difficult tool for the Obama administration to use.
A handful of jurisdictions have been subjected to pre-clearance, or advance approval, of election changes through the Civil Rights Act provision it is relying on, but a court first must find that a state or local government engaged in intentional discrimination under the Constitution's 14th or 15th amendments, or the jurisdiction has to admit to discrimination. Unlike other parts of the voting law, the discriminatory effect of an action is not enough to trigger court review.
Holder said he hopes officials in other states take heed of the lawsuits in North Carolina and Texas.
"I and my colleagues at many levels of the Justice Department will never hesitate – never hesitate – to do all that we must do to protect the constitutionally guaranteed civil rights of all Americans," he said.