A Cure Worse Than The Disease
Published: August 4th, 2016
By: Steven and Cokie Roberts

One of the most important political events of the summer took place in a federal courtroom in Virginia last week. There, a three-judge panel unanimously rejected several North Carolina laws that were deliberately designed, they found, to reduce the strength of African-American voters.

North Carolina has emerged as a critical swing state with a voting population that's more than 20 percent black. Hillary Clinton's chances depend heavily on maximizing the turnout in minority communities.

The court concluded that the North Carolina measures targeted blacks "with almost surgical precision" by ending election day registration, cutting back early voting and imposing a strict voter ID requirement. Its order reverses those actions, making Clinton's organizing efforts in the state easier.

But there is a much larger point at stake here. Republican leaders in many states have decided that since they cannot win a significant share of the minority vote, they would simply pass laws to suppress that vote. That's well beyond politics as usual. That's insidious, immoral and downright un-American.

"The ability of Americans to have a voice in the direction of their country -- to have a fair and free opportunity to help write the story of this nation -- is fundamental to who we are and who we aspire to be," said Attorney General Loretta Lynch after the North Carolina ruling.

North Carolina is one of 17 states to enact statutes that make voting more difficult, and until recently, the federal courts have been reluctant to get involved and overturn those legislative actions.

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That is now changing for two reasons, and the first is race. It's one thing to use political power to enhance partisan advantage. It's quite another to penalize minorities as part of your strategy. That's when a line is crossed from unsettling to unconstitutional.

As the three-judge panel wrote: "We cannot ignore the record evidence that because of race, the legislature enacted one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history."

The panel is not alone. Federal judges in Texas, Wisconsin and North Dakota have also ruled recently against laws aimed at reducing minority power. The Supreme Court has yet to take up the issue, and probably won't before the election, so the lower court rulings will stand for now and the trend line is clear.

These judicial decisions all come to the same basic conclusion: Election victories do not convey unlimited power. The winners cannot use their position to deprive losers of their basic rights.

There is a second reason for the courts' new aggressiveness: the blatant distortion of the truth by the laws' authors. They claim the measures are designed to combat voter fraud, but that's simply a lie.

There is no evidence -- none -- that voter fraud is a serious problem, and the judges forcefully made that point. The North Carolina laws "impose cures for problems that did not exist," the panel wrote.

The judge in the Wisconsin case was even more critical.

"The evidence in this case," wrote District Judge James D. Peterson, "casts doubt on the notion that voter ID laws foster integrity and confidence. The Wisconsin experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities. To put it bluntly, Wisconsin's strict version of voter ID laws is a cure worse than the disease."

And yet the leaders of the North Carolina legislature continued to insist on their false version of reality. They denounced the judges as "three partisan Democrats" and said, "we can only wonder if the intent is to reopen the door for voter fraud" and help politicians like Hillary Clinton "steal the election."

That statement is a triumph of Trumpism. It asserts something to be true with absolutely no supporting evidence. And it shows contempt for the rule of law and the role of independent judges. After all, it was Trump who insisted that a federal judge hearing a fraud case against him could not be fair because he was a "Mexican" (the judge's parents were from Mexico, but he was born in Indiana).

American history reflects a long, painful and at times bloody struggle to expand voting rights -- for blacks, for women, for young people. The devious machinations of Republican legislatures to roll back that progress for crass partisan advantage are a moral stain on our legal and political process. Fortunately, a few brave federal judges are determined to eradicate that stain.

– By Steve and Cokie Roberts, NEA Columnists