Some people say it was fitting for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to take testimony about the state of voting across the country in the capital city of a state that has been the target of many recent lawsuits in which voters have accused lawmakers of disenfranchising them.
The eight-member commission, created in 1957 to investigate, report on and make recommendations on civil rights issues, met for a full day of hearings and testimony on Friday in Raleigh. The members called in legal experts, former and current federal government officials, professors and voting rights advocates to talk about what has happened across the country since 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.
In North Carolina, many of the speakers noted, lawmakers have been accused of drawing election districts to weaken the influence of African-American voters and creating new election laws that with near “surgical precision” were targeted to limit black voters’ access to the ballot.
Patricia Timmons-Goodson, a former N.C. Supreme Court justice, is vice chair of the commission, whose members were appointed by Democrats and Republicans in the presidential office, U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
Their session comes nearly a month after President Donald Trump disbanded his controversial commission charged with investigating his unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud during the 2016 election.
It also comes at a time when states across the country are seeing cases similar to the North Carolina redistricting and voter ID law challenges that have played out in the courts for much of the past decade.
Commissioner Debo Adegbile, a lawyer and Democrat appointed by former President Barack Obama, said at the start of the meeting that it was appropriate they chose to hold the hearing in North Carolina, “where the tension between voting rights and politics is so acute.”
The panel discussions showed a similar divide to the debate that has played out in the North Carolina court cases, with some contending voting rights were threatened more and more by redistricting, gerrymandering and laws that roll back early-voting times and require photo ID to vote. Others argued that voting discrimination was not as prevalent as it was before the adoption of the Voting Rights Act and that challenges to new laws brought allegations of racial discrimination when the changes were more about partisan politics.
‘Times have changed’
The panelists were asked to talk about federal enforcement efforts after Congress, in 2006, reauthorized temporary provisions of the Voting Rights Act, a measure that passed with bi-partisan support.
They were also asked about the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County vs. Holder, which ruled that North Carolina and other mostly Southern states no longer had to obtain approval from the federal justice department before changing voting processes and election districts in places that had histories of discrimination.
The speakers who raised concerns about efforts to erode minority voting rights included the Rev. William J. Barber II, former head of the state NAACP and president of Repairers of the Breach, and Anita Earls, executive director of Southern Coalition for Social Justice. .
Their viewpoints clashed with such speakers as Hans von Spakovsky, an attorney, former member of the Federal Election Commission and who served as the de facto head of the voting section in the justice department’s civil rights division under former Attorney General John Ashcroft. He and others echoed remarks that were similar to North Carolina Republicans defending their redistricting plans and election law changes.
Those concerned about voting rights urged the commission to include a proposal in a 2018 report to Congress for restoring the requirement for federal justice department clearance of changes. Though statewide efforts to curtail voting rights and access often get media and public attention, smaller changes such as changing polling places at the local level do not always get the scrutiny needed, they said.
Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and former head of the civil rights division in the Obama justice department, said “there’s no question that Americans need Congress to restore the VRA.” Gupta helped bring the Obama justice department lawsuit against North Carolina.
Von Spakovsky, who was on Trump’s voter fraud commission and has made claims of voter fraud though few cases have ever been prosecuted, told the commission that by his estimate voting discrimination was “rare.” While calling the Voting Rights Act a law that was supposed to be temporary, he also said “times have changed” since its adoption.
‘It’s going to get worse’
Several of the speakers who followed von Spakovsky disputed some of his claims.
Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Los Angeles law school and a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Obama justice department, said it was misleading to say that because the justice department had filed fewer discrimination claims that the problems had been dialed back.
What’s happening now, Levitt told the commission, is that without states having to obtain pre-clearance from the justice department, disenfranchised voters have to bring costly lawsuits that take years to make it through the courts.
“Shelby County has left Americans unable to timely defend themselves against voting discrimination,” Levitt said. “It’s going to get worse.”
In addition to hearing about past cases in North Carolina, the commission touched on efforts in this state to change how judges get to the bench on all the courts, including a possible redistricting plan that could force many of the black judges into positions of having to run against each other to be re-elected.
Timmons-Goodson, who has spoken out against the proposed changes to the North Carolina judiciary, asked Levitt whether he was aware of the plans.
Levitt told her he was aware and worried that “they will impact the character of justice that North Carolinians will receive.”
Texas, Alaska, South Carolina, Georgia and other states were also mentioned at the commission hearing.
The commission slotted two hours on Friday evening to hear from the public. Many of the same themes were echoed by the public speakers — allegations of voter fraud that were not substantiated and complaints of policies aimed to disenfranchise people of color.
The commission is accepting comments on email until March 19 at VotingRights@usccr.gov.