Rogue North Carolina Targets Student Voting

Human Rights

Just days after North Carolina’s Republican Gov. Pat McCrory signed a GOP-authored “hit list” bill rolling back a generation of inclusive voting reforms, election officials in two college towns have begun targeting student voters.

The county election board near Appalachian State University will close an early voting site and Election Day precinct on that campus. And the board near Elizabeth City State University barred a student from running for city council, saying the senior’s on-campus address did not make him a legal resident and thus eligible to run for office.

Barriers to student voting are nothing new, but these North Carolina attacks are signs of what the GOP wants to do nationally, especially in states where it is the political majority. Its strategy is to complicate voting by slices of society presumed to lean Democratic, whether non-whites, the poor or students. What’s not as widely known is that a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision (not the one that gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act) is encouraging the Republicans to target these voting blocks.

Progressives know the Republican Party’s white and wealthier base is shrinking as America’s demographics shift and people of color inch toward outnumbering whites. But what progressives may not know is how extensively the Court’s majority, all appointed by Republican presidents, is helping the GOP to make voting less free and less fair. 

“So, American citizen, you think you have a right to vote for your federal representatives? Think again. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia just disabused you of that notion—although in a backhanded sort of way,” Frank Askin, a professor of law and director of the Constitutional Rights Clinic at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, wrote this past June in the Newark Star-Ledger.

Askin was not referring to the Voting Rights Act ruling, which threw out the formula by which the U.S. Justice Department could overrule discriminatory changes in voting laws or practices. Instead, he’s referring to another ruling that supports the GOP’s ability to go ahead and decide—state-by-state—who is and isn’t a legal voter.

This means that seemingly local decisions, such as two North Carolina election boards targeting students, are the tip of a very large new legal iceberg, with state and local Republicans knowing the Supreme Court has their back. That is so because Scalia, writing the opinion in an Arizona case over its requirement that new voters present citizenship documents, said that states—not Congress—decide who can vote.

“In the 2000 case of Bush vs. Gore, the U.S. Supreme Court reminded us that Americans did not even have a constitutional right to vote for their president,” Askin wrote. “That right is subject to the will of state legislatures, which, under the Constitution, could themselves appoint presidential electors. The only protections the Constitution presently provides for voting are those forbidding discrimination on the basis of race (15th Amendment), sex (19th) and age (26th).”

Republican politicans know exactly what this means—where the U.S. Constitution is not explicit, states can fill in the gaps. Thus, Arizona, which was seen as losing its proof of citizenship case in the short run, quickly responded by saying it would follow the Court’s ruling and come back with a new way to impose that hurdle. That was in mid-June.

A week later, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. Then GOP majorities in Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and North Carolina resumed working on ways to change the voting process to make it harder for perceived Democratic blocks to vote.

North Carolina went the furthest and fastest of all: ending same-day registration before Election Day, cutting back early voting options, ending public financing for judges and more, including giving local election boards the signal to impede student voters. And predictably, two counties are throwing up barriers for students.

If you think this is happening only in North Carolina, think again. Anywhere the GOP has tried to impede student voting in the past—such as in Virginia, Georgia, Ohio and Florida—is paying attention.

Students, take note: this could be coming to your state.

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