Good afternoon. I am joined by Acting Assistant Attorney General [Jocelyn] Samuels, along with our three United States Attorneys from North Carolina – Anne Tompkins, Thomas Walker, and Ripley Rand. We are here to announce that the Justice Department will file suit today against the State of North Carolina to challenge portions of the State’s highly restrictive new voting law.
The North Carolina State Board of Elections and the Board’s Executive Director are also defendants in our suit, which will be filed in the Middle District of North Carolina.
The North Carolina law includes troubling new restrictions, such as provisions that will significantly reduce early voting days; eliminate same-day registration during early voting; impose a restrictive photo identification requirement for in-person voting; and prohibit the counting of otherwise legitimate provisional ballots that are mistakenly cast in the right county, but in the wrong precinct. The Justice Department expects to show that the clear and intended effects of these changes would contract the electorate and result in unequal access to participation in the political process on account of race.
By restricting access and ease of voter participation, this new law would shrink, rather than expand, access to the franchise. And it is especially troubling that the law would significantly narrow the early voting window that enabled hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians, including a disproportionally large numbers of minority voters, to cast ballots during the last election cycle. Allowing limits on voting rights that disproportionately exclude minority voters would be inconsistent with our ideals as a nation. And it would not be in keeping with the proud tradition of democracy that North Carolinians have built in recent years.
During the last few elections, the state’s own data shows that North Carolina’s voter turnout rates improved significantly and were well above national averages. In the 2008 and 2012 general elections, African-American voters dramatically increased their participation rates across the state – and more than 70 percent of African Americans who voted in those elections cast ballots during the early voting period. Just months after North Carolina saw the highest overall turnout in sheer numbers in its history – in November 2012 – and within days of the Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision to strike down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act – the state legislature took aggressive steps to curtail the voting rights of African Americans. This is an intentional attempt to break a system that was working. It defies common sense.
In challenging this law, the Justice Department will present evidence of racially discriminatory effect resulting from these changes – based on the state’s own data. The evidence will also show that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted this legislation despite having evidence before it that these changes would make it harder for many minority voters to participate in the electoral process. For instance, in 2005, the state legislature made an explicit finding that the failure to count out-of-precinct provisional ballots disproportionately affected African-American voters. And, during the legislature’s consideration of these changes earlier this year, evidence was presented about how some provisions of the bill would adversely affect minority voters. Nonetheless, the General Assembly passed new restrictions that would do just that.
So let me be very clear: today’s action is about far more than unwarranted voter restrictions. It is about our democracy, and who we are as a nation. I stand here to announce this lawsuit more in sorrow than in anger. It pains me to see the voting rights of my fellow citizens negatively impacted by actions predicated on a rationale that is tenuous at best – and on concerns that we all know are not, in fact, real.
To other states considering voting restrictions like North Carolina’s, I want to say this: I and my colleagues at every level of the Justice Department will never hesitate to do all that we must to protect the Constitutionally-guaranteed civil rights of all Americans. I call upon state leaders across the country to pause before they enact measures similar to those at issue in this case. I ask them to think about their solemn duty as lawmakers. And I urge them to consider that, whatever role each of us happens to play – for the times we are honored to serve in public office – we occupy positions of public trust, and must be faithful stewards of this democracy. We must be guided not by short-term partisan goals, but by the historic obligations that have been entrusted to us. And we must reflect upon our duty to the American people, on our own place in history, and on the imperative to act in a manner that is consistent with the best of America.
Today’s action is not the first that the Justice Department has taken to protect voting rights following the Supreme Court’s flawed decision to strike down a key part of the Voting Rights Act. And I fear that it will not be our last. Earlier this summer, the Department filed two lawsuits against the state of Texas regarding laws that had previously been blocked by federal courts under Section 5. One complaint challenges Congressional and legislative redistricting maps that intentionally discriminated against Latino and African-American citizens. And a second complaint challenges Texas’s restrictive photo identification requirement as racially discriminatory in both purpose and result. Each of these complaints asks courts in Texas to subject the State to a preclearance regime similar to the one required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. These actions prove that – whenever warranted by the facts and the law – the Department will not hesitate to use the tools and legal authorities at our disposal to fight against racial discrimination, to stand against disenfranchisement, and to safeguard the right of every eligible American to cast a ballot. All of these cases, including that which I announce today, will be hard fought and difficult. But they must be brought.
We also recognize, however, that case-by-case litigation is no substitute for Congressional action on legislation to fill the void left by the Supreme Court’s decision. President Obama and I remain committed to working with leaders from across the political spectrum to ensure that modern voting protections are adequate to the challenges of the 21st century. We know from our history that advances in civil and voting rights have been hard-won. The progress we’ve seen has not been inevitable. And that’s why we cannot, we must not, and we will not simply stand by as the voices of those disproportionately affected by some of the proposals we’ve seen – including the North Carolina minority communities impacted by the provisions we challenge today – are shut out of the process of self-governance.
In this great country, our progress has always been of our own making. It’s up to each of us to ensure that engagement in the democratic process will always constitute the birthright – and the solemn responsibility – of every American citizen.
I’d like to thank Acting Assistant Attorney General Samuels and all of the dedicated men and women of the Civil Rights Division – along with the U.S. Attorneys who stand with me today – for their work in preparing this filing. I would be happy to take a few questions at this time.