You might suppose that North Carolina’s political culture would lean pretty far to the right. The state was part of the Confederacy, its schools remained segregated for about a decade after Brown v Board of Education, as of course did restaurants, hotels, beaches and so on up until the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and it sent arch-conservative Jesse Helms to the Senate for an uninterrupted 30 years.
But voters also elected progressive Terry Sanford governor over a segregationist opponent in 1960, and they idolized long-time UNC basketball coach Dean Smith, well known for his liberal politics. More recently, while other Southern states took a negative attitude toward the rights of criminal defendants, North Carolina established the country’s first state-run Innocence Inquiry Commission to investigate possible false convictions, a process that has freed a number of innocent people from prison. Its legislature was North Carolina is now considered a swing state in presidential politics, having voted narrowly for Obama in 2008 and narrowly for Romney in 2012, and the polls have this year too close to call.
But in 2013 the Republican Party took control of the state government for the first time since Reconstruction, and the Republicans running the legislature proved remarkably extreme, even by the standard of lot of North Carolina conservatives. The state’s Republican governor, Pat McCrory, is pretty conservative, but he vetoed a series of bills he deemed too far out, only to see the legislature promptly override those vetoes. Most notoriously, the state adopted the ridiculous HB2 “bathroom bill” with barely any time for consideration, resulting in a bill so incompetently written that it doesn’t do what most people think it does and even in many cases requires men to use women’s restrooms, the opposite of the intent. (More on those mistakes here and on sensible conservatives responses here.)
Republican leaders in the General Assembly are of course well aware that voters are pretty evenly split between the parties, and that demographic changes similar to those in Virginia are making the state increasingly Democratic. Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than 30 percent (though that’s partly a matter of historical inertia, the state having so long been governed by Democrats). A little over 2 percent of the state’s voters are now Latinos, and there is a continuing influx of relatively well-educated voters from more liberal parts of the country, notably to areas such as the Research Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill and environs). (Some wags say that the rapidly growing city of Cary, between Raleigh and the Research Triangle Park, derives its name from an acronym for “Containment Area for Relocated Yankees.”)
So to have some hope of staying in power, the people running the legislature have resorted to extreme gerrymandering of legislative and congressional districts, something they expected to get away with after the Supreme Court in 2013 overturned the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act in the decision Shelby Country v Holder. But voting rights advocates filed suit, and the legislature was forced to redo the congressional redistricting earlier this year because the racial gerrymandering was so blatant. The legislature responded with a new set of districts they openly admitted was just a gerrymandered, only on a purely political rather than racial basis. (To be fair, Democrats as well as Republicans have been guilty of gerrymandering as well, but usually not to quite so great a degree.)
In a separate case, an appeals court overturned much of North Carolina’s notorious voter ID law (formally called the Voter Identification Verification Act or VIVA, which made numerous other changes to election law besides requiring use of a very limited set of photo IDs). To quote a July 29 article on Raleigh’s WRAL television news website”
The judges noted that, before passing VIVA, state lawmakers obtained data broken down by race on the use of various voting practices, such as early voting and same-day registration, and used the law to target those practices to target black voters “with almost surgical precision.”
“Using race as a proxy for party may be an effective way to win an election. But intentionally targeting a particular race’s access to the franchise because its members vote for a particular party, in a predictable manner, constitutes discriminatory purpose,” [appellate court judge Diana Gribbon] Motz wrote. “A state legislature acting on such a motivation engages in intentional racial discrimination in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act.”
Governor McCrory responded with a falsehood: “Photo IDs are required to purchase Sudafed, cash a check, board an airplane or enter a federal court room.” In fact, there are alternatives to a photo ID in all those cases, and the specific set of permissible IDs wasn’t selected on a racial basis.
In an August 18 opinion piece for NBC News Zachary Roth noted that the GOP’s efforts to limit voting amount to a tacit admission that higher turnout hurts the party politically. Their strategy to deal with the appeals court ruling, he said, would involve “Pressuring local election boards to make early voting as inconvenient as possible.”
Another report from WRAL dated August 26 supports this. Wake County, which includes Raleigh and Cary, has a state-appointed three-member Board of Elections with two Republicans and one Democrat. On August 7 the board’s Republican chairman, Ellis Boyle, was contacted via email by the state Republican Party’s executive director, Dallas Woodhouse. Woodhouse wanted Boyle to turn over his chairmanship to a new board member just appointed that day and who also happens to be the GOP executive director’s cousin. Copies of the emails were requested by The News & Observer of Raleigh and turned over by the Wake County communications office, and according to WRAL’s summary, “Dallas Woodhouse also asked Boyle to delay any vote on a plan to expand early voting from 10 to 17 days, as required under a court ruling that applies statewide.” Chairman Boyle and the Wake County Board of Elections did not grant either request.
The GOP executive director is quoted as saying, “It’s not about helping my cousin, it’s about our problems with Ellis” Boyle, who, despite being a Republican, “generally has been unresponsive to any thoughts from the party.” In context, he apparently means that Boyle is acting to carry out the court order rather than try to block it as party wants him to do.
For more about North Carolina’s voter ID law (and Wisconsin’s), see this recent article from US New and World Report.
For more on the drastic rightward shift of North Carolina’s legislature in a politically balanced state, see this 2014 article from Governing.