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'Racially Discriminatory Intent' And Voter ID Laws


Now it's time for our regular feature, Words You'll Hear. That's where we try to understand what's happening in the news by parsing some of the words associated with those stories. This week, the words are racially discriminatory intent. On Friday, a federal appeals court struck down the core of a North Carolina law that required voters to show photo ID, eliminated opportunities to vote early and to register to vote on Election Day, among other things. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the measure's provisions were in fact intended to target African-American voters.

Here to tell us more about the case in North Carolina and similar cases across the country is Richard Hasen. He's a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, and he's with us now via Skype. Professor Hasen, thanks so much for speaking with us.

RICHARD HASEN: It's a pleasure to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, the photo ID requirement is one that gets a lot of attention, but could you tell us more about what made the voting law in North Carolina so noxious to voting rights advocates?

HASEN: Every piece of this law had appeared somewhere else. But nowhere else but North Carolina did we see all of these rules meant to roll back voting and registration embodied in a single law. In the past, states and localities with a history of racial discrimination had to get approval. The Supreme Court in the Shelby County case in 2013 said, no, you don't need it anymore because racial discrimination is kind of a thing of the past, and so you have to take each case case by case. North Carolina comes in, passes this omnibus bill that makes it harder to register and vote. And that's what the 4th Circuit struck down in the opinion issued last week.

MARTIN: What drove the federal appeals court decision? Was it the manner in which the legislature crafted the vote? I note that you noted the timing, but I also make note of the fact that the court ruling talked about the fact that the legislature had requested the data on the use - by race - of a number of voting practices. What if they hadn't compiled this data and only used data on how Democrats voted, for example? Do you think they would've been the same result?

HASEN: That's a great question. And what's really hard about these cases is that the claim is, well, we weren't discriminating against anyone. We certainly weren't discriminating on the basis of race. But at worst, we were discriminating against Democrats. These are all laws that are passed by Republican legislatures against the views of Democrats.

And so how do you decide whether discrimination against Democrats is the same thing as discrimination against, say, African-Americans or Latinos? And that's something that the 4th Circuit, in its opinion, struggled with and said, look, if you target a party knowing that this is the party that is favored by minority voters, that's race discrimination even if it's not driven by racial hatred or racial animus.

MARTIN: Now, of course, the Republicans say that the challenge to these laws is politically motivated, motivated and intended to boost Democratic voters showing up at the polls. And the lead attorney on these cases does work for the Hillary Clinton campaign. So can you separate out the political motivation on either side?

HASEN: Well, I certainly think that it's true that Democrats and Republicans have the same view that if you make it easier to register and vote, that's going to help poor and minority voters, who tend to vote for Democrats. But I tend to look at these cases differently and take it from the point of view of the voter and ask the question, does the state have a good reason to burden voters, to make it harder to register and vote?

And if the state has a good reason for that, then maybe its law is OK. But if the state's reasons are made up or pretextual, then that's not a reason to make it harder to register and vote. And in this case, the court said that the laws were not really justified by preventing fraud. They didn't really act to prevent fraud. They seem to be motivated instead to drive down turnout of groups that tend to vote for the minority party.

MARTIN: So what does this mean for this year's presidential election? Does this mean that the rules that were in place before these laws were put into effect now have to prevail? Can we say?

HASEN: It depends on the place. So in Texas, the voter ID law is still going to be in effect there. It does mean as a whole that more people who are eligible to vote who want to register and vote will actually be able to vote in November, assuming that these rulings stand the way they are right now.

MARTIN: That was Richard Hasen. He's a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine. He specializes in election law, and he was kind enough to join us via Skype from his home office in Los Angeles. Professor Hasen, thank you so much for joining us.

HASEN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.