In the past decade, North Carolina has been a central battleground for the partisan fight over voting restrictions.
Since their takeover of the state’s General Assembly in 2010, Republicans have devised district maps and pushed through voter identification laws that have prompted a series of high-profile court cases. In a state that retained literacy tests until the 1970s, the potential for disenfranchisement of black voters is at the core of the continuing debate.
The state’s Republican politicians have defended the strict voter ID rules by saying they’re meant to prevent fraud, including unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter impersonation. Now, the possibility of a different sort of election fraud has gripped the state.
In North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District, state officials are investigating whether a Republican voter-turnout operative and his employees manipulated, destroyed or illegally handled absentee ballots in Bladen County. They are also looking into reports that early-voter data was improperly leaked to Republicans by the elections board there, opening up the potential for a new election.
The current voting controversy follows eight years of partisan fervor over how elections are run in North Carolina.
In the November election, Republicans gained control of both houses in the General Assembly for the first time in over a century, signaling a seismic ideological shift in the capital. But at the time, there was still a Democratic governor in power who served as a roadblock for the passage of strict voter ID laws.
Voter rights advocates said there had been substantial progress in voter participation in the decade before the 2010 election. From 1996 to 2008, voter turnout increased by more than 10 percentage points, according to North Carolina records. During the 2008 election, there were new provisions in place meant to expand voter participation, such as same-day voter registration and allowing 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote.
“As a state, we were a leader in voting rights, arguably, for the decade before the 2010 shift in power,” said Bob Phillips, the executive director of Common Cause in North Carolina, a nonpartisan government watchdog group.
With its newfound majority, the Republicans had the power to redraw congressional and state legislative districts to maximize their own advantage. Under those maps, Republicans controlled 10 of the 13 congressional seats.
The redistricting drew swift condemnations from Democrats and a series of lawsuits arguing that the maps were drawn to concentrate and dilute the influence of black voters.
“There was a united outcry from civil rights groups and Democrats,” said Allison Riggs, a staff attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “This was setting the state back.”
The state elected a Republican governor, Pat McCrory, removing the veto that stood in the way of the Legislature’s voter ID law. Mr. McCrory was a strong proponent of the legislation and defended it from legal challenges throughout his four-year term.
In June, the United States Supreme Court delivered a 5-to-4 decision, called Shelby County v. Holder, that effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which determined that certain states must receive clearance from the federal government before changing voting procedures.
In a clear response to the decision, North Carolina’s Legislature swiftly passed a voter law in August that imposed strict voter ID rules and rolled back measures that had been meant to expand voter participation. Legal challenges quickly followed.
In October, the 2011 maps came back into focus when a group of North Carolina voters sued in federal court, arguing that Republican legislators intentionally concentrated black voters into two congressional districts. The case would eventually reach the Supreme Court.
Another group of voters challenged the Republican-drawn maps from 2011, this time homing in on the state legislative districts. The lawsuit, also destined for the Supreme Court, argued that black voters had been packed into nine Senate districts and 19 House districts.
This was a high-drama year in court for North Carolina’s collection of election challenges.
In February, a Federal District Court struck down the maps of the two congressional districts under scrutiny, finding that they had been racially gerrymandered. The state appealed the decision, but proceeded to draw new lines for the two districts.
Months later, a district court ruled that all 28 state legislative districts in question were racial gerrymanders and unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause.
That same year, a federal appeals court struck down the state’s voter identification law, saying its provisions deliberately “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision” with a goal of diluting black turnout at the polls. The ruling also restored measures that had been invalidated on some level by the earlier law, including provisions like allowing voters to register on Election Day.
In back-to-back actions, the Supreme Court validated some of the lower court decisions on North Carolina’s maps and voting provisions.
First, the justices refused to revive the state’s restrictive voter identification law, which did not allow the forms of identification used disproportionately by blacks, including IDs issued to government employees, students and people receiving public assistance.
Days later, the Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s rejection of the maps for two congressional districts, finding that legislators had relied too much on race when devising them.
Early in the year, a panel of federal judges struck down North Carolina’s congressional map. It was the first time that a federal court had blocked a congressional map because of a partisan gerrymander.
The Supreme Court then declined to hear the appeal, sending it back to the lower court, which reached the same conclusion: that the map gave Republicans outsize influence in choosing representatives. But the judges also ruled that the same maps should be used in this year’s November election because there would not be enough time to create new ones.
In June, the Supreme Court upheld part of a lower court’s order on the racial gerrymandering of some state legislative districts, but determined that changes were unnecessary for two others.
As for the voter ID law, Republican legislators in North Carolina took another shot at it this year. Voters approved a constitutional amendment in November that would require people to provide a photo ID at the polls, and the State Legislature would most likely be able to override any veto by the current governor, a Democrat, making Republican voter ID restrictions a reality.