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Why North Carolina's Voting Law Hits Low-Wage Workers Hardest

An appeals court heard a challenge Tuesday to North Carolina’s voting law, the strictest in the nation.
Image: A woman holds a voting rights sign as demonstrators march through the streets of Winston-Salem, N.C.
A woman holds a voting rights sign as demonstrators march through the streets of Winston-Salem, N.C., onJuly 13, 2015.Chuck Burton / AP

Stacey Stitt works at a Popeye’s in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he makes $7.75 an hour—just 50 cents above the national minimum.

Stitt wanted to vote in his state’s primary in March. But he had lost his driver’s license the previous month, and because he didn’t have a copy of his birth certificate—he was born on a U.S. military base in Germany—he hadn’t received a new one by Election Day. Until a few years ago, Stitt would nonetheless have been able to cast a ballot simply by attesting to his identity. But in 2013, North Carolina passed a strict new voting law including an ID provision. That meant Stitt, who is 35 and African-American, was out of luck.

Still, he considered going to the polls in hopes of casting a provisional ballot. But even that proved impossible when he found out he was scheduled to work all day. A two-hour round-trip commute by bus—Stitt can’t afford a car—leaves him little time for much else on work days. And being even a few minutes late can mean getting written up.

“It might have just been a nuisance for someone with more control over their schedule, and more time,” Stitt told reporters Monday. But for him, he said, it meant disenfranchisement. “The voting restrictions that North Carolina created made it impossible for me to vote this year. And I know I’m not alone.”

Stitt’s experience underlines how the controversial law—which goes before a federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia Tuesday—threatens not only to undermine democracy in the abstract, but also to tilt the scales on crucial real-world issues.

There’s little dispute that the law—which in addition to the ID measure includes cuts to early voting, the elimination of same-day voter registration and a ban on out-of-precinct voting, among other restrictions—hits racial minorities and the young hardest. If it keeps large numbers of them from the polls, it could undercut the strength of political causes driven by those voters—among the most prominent, the fight for higher pay for fast-food workers, in which Stitt has been active.

It’s not hard to see how the issues intertwine. Fast-food workers want not just higher pay but more control over their schedules. They complain that they’re often given only a day or two notice in advance of a shift. And restrictions on voting consistently hit those with the least free time or control over their schedules hardest, because it’s harder for them to take time to get the ID needed or to make it to the polls when hours are shortened.

It’s no coincidence that the North Carolina voting law’s Republican backers have also aimed to stymie the fight for a living wage: The “bathroom bill” that spurred national outrage in March for its impact on the LGBT community also included a little-noticed provision that barred local governments from raising their minimum wage or mandating other benefits for workers.

Economic issues aside, the stakes in the case could hardly be higher. The voting law—the strictest in the nation—could affect election outcomes this fall, giving Republicans a boost in a pivotal state in the presidential race, as well as tight Senate and governor’s races. And if the case ends up before the Supreme Court, as appears possible, it could form the basis of a broad ruling in which the court more clearly spells out when voting restrictions do and don’t violate the Voting Rights Act.

Here’s how we got here: In June 2013, the Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder, weakened the Voting Rights Act by neutering the requirement that most southern states, including North Carolina, get federal signoff before changing their voting laws. Six weeks later, North Carolina Republicans passed their multi-pronged voting law. In April, U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder ruled to uphold the law, noting that minority turnout was in fact greater in 2014, with the law in effect, than in the 2010 midterms.

But lawyers for the U.S. Justice Department and the North Carolina NAACP, who are challenging the law, say that proves little, because all sorts of other factors influence turnout (and, they note, a highly competitive Senate race, which could have determined control of the chamber, drew voters to the polls in 2014). In addition, the ID provision didn’t go into effect until this year.

More broadly, the plaintiffs have offered clear evidence that non-white voters are more likely than white voters to lack ID, to use early voting and same-day registration and to vote out of their precinct. And they say that’s because of an undisputed history of social and economic discrimination in the state—a condition that’s required for a court to find a violation of the Voting Rights Act’s Section 2.

Days before Schroeder heard the case last year, North Carolina softened the ID requirement, allowing people without an ID to vote if they affirmed that they had a “reasonable impediment” that stopped them getting one. But the change wasn’t well publicized, and what counts as a reasonable impediment was left up to poll workers.

In a promising sign for the plaintiffs, Tuesday’s appeal was heard by the same three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals that issued an injunction against parts of the law in 2014. All three judges were appointed to the appeals court by Democratic presidents, though one, Judge Henry Floyd, was previously appointed to a federal district court by President George W. Bush.

That injunction was later lifted by the Supreme Court, allowing the law to stay in effect for that year’s midterm elections. One study by a progressive group found that it disenfranchised more than 30,000 would-be voters.

Dale Ho, a lawyer with the ACLU, which is helping to bring the challenge to the law, said that on Tuesday, the judges seemed more interested than they had been in 2014 in the legislature’s intent in passing the law—suggesting they could be open to the claim that lawmakers acted with the deliberate intent to discriminate.

Ho said Thomas Farr, a lawyer for North Carolina, was asked at one point why the legislature, after the Shelby County ruling, changed the bill to remove public assistance agency IDs from the list of acceptable IDs—a move that hit black voters hardest. “I don’t know,” Farr replied, according to Ho.