When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a crucial provision of the Voting Rights Act four years ago it was a heavy blow in the long war over voting rights. Now, even a hard- fought victory for the NAACP in North Carolina is merely a preview for tougher voting rights battles ahead.

On May 15, the high court declined to hear North Carolina’s appeal in the case of North Carolina v. North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP. In the beginning, the NAACP sued North Carolina for passing laws reducing the early voting period from 17 to 10 days, ending out-of-precinct voting, ending same-day voter registration and voting, ending preregistration for 16-year-olds and requiring strict photo identification laws.

The NAACP argued the laws had a racially discriminatory impact and intent. However, North Carolina countered that only partisan politics was at play, not racial discrimination. In North Carolina, as in the majority of states, nationwide, Republicans control the legislatures.

Gloria Browne-Marshall
AANIC Supreme Court Correspondent

In the North Carolina case, the NAACP lost at trial. They appealed and won. Then, North Carolina appealed to the Supreme Court. On May 15, the Supreme Court rejected North Carolina’s appeal. In not hearing their case, the Court allowed the lower court’s decision to stand, giving a victory to the NAACP. North Carolina cannot enforce those restrictive laws that would undercut voter access to the polls—for now.  

This North Carolina voter suppression case, like a case in Texas that changed polling places and enacted strict photo identification laws, followed the infamous Shelby County, AL v. Holder case of 2013, which struck down a major provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 protecting Blacks and other people of color from discriminatory voting laws like those passed by North Carolina and Texas.

The Voting Rights Act, initiated by President Lyndon Johnson, followed the deaths of civil rights workers and the violent beating of Black protesters in Selma, Ala., in 1965, an event referred to as Bloody Sunday. Back then, President Johnson demanded the preclearance provision to prevent states from enacting harmful laws in the future. Despite ongoing reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act by Congress, the preclearance provision was invalidated in 2013.  

The preclearance provision would have required certain states and certain jurisdictions with proven records of voter suppression to ask the federal government to review proposed changes to their voting laws before those changes could be enacted. If those laws would harm voting rights then the laws could not be enacted.

Within days of the Supreme Court striking down the preclearance provision, Texas and North Carolina began to implement voter suppression laws. As an attorney, Chief Justice John Roberts worked on theories to end the preclearance provision and he wrote the opinion in the Shelby County case. Roberts also wrote a two-page opinion in the North Carolina case, making it clear that the Court did not reject the North Carolina case based on its merits.

“Given the blizzard of filings over who is and who is not authorized to seek review in this Court under North Carolina law, it is important to recall our frequent admonition that he denial of a writ of certiorari imports no expression of opinion upon the merits of the case,” Roberts wrote.

This signals to Republican-controlled state legislatures that the Court will hear cases similar to this North Carolina case, legal experts say.

“I think the right way to think about this is that North Carolina was a temporary victory in a very long war,” said Heather K. Gerken, an election law scholar at Yale University.