The Republican-led North Carolina Supreme Court in April tossed out a ruling that had been handed down when the court leaned Democratic. The move reinstated SB 824, a 2018 law that provides a rigid list of photo IDs approved for voting in the Tar Heel State.

This fall’s local elections will be the first contests since the judicial reversal that some residents call a “gut punch.”

GOP proponents of such restrictive measures — which are being enacted in states including Florida and Ohio — contend that they strengthen election security. However, since there’s no evidence of widespread voter fraud in North Carolina or anywhere else in the country, civil rights advocates insist that these actions are part of an attempt to shrink the franchise for Black Americans.

In December, when it was controlled by Democrats, the North Carolina high court blocked SB 824, affirming a trial court’s ruling that the law had been designed with racially discriminatory intent: Black voters are 39% more likely than white voters to lack an acceptable ID and, as a result, would have to navigate an onerous administrative process to cast their ballots.

While SB 824 adds two forms of eligible IDs that its predecessor, HB 589, didn’t allow — qualifying student and government employee ID — the justices last year noted expert analysis that found that the additions wouldn’t ameliorate the law’s disparate impact. And more broadly, they pointed to evidence that “obtaining a qualifying ID, even a free ID, would not actually be cost-free or burden-free.”

Rather, Black voters would bear a special burden, since they’re more likely to “live in poverty, lack access to private transportation, or be employed in a job that does not allow time off during the normal business hours when government offices that issue IDs are open,” wrote the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a nonprofit group, in a March supplemental brief. The document bolstered political science research showing that ID laws discriminate along racial lines.

Republican justices, who officially gained control of the court in January, defended their decision to bring back SB 824 by stressing the importance of promoting “greater integrity and confidence in our elections.” With the law’s return, activists are working overtime to make sure that the communities likely to be disproportionately affected are prepared for the shifting voting landscape.

‘Folks just aren’t clear about what’s going on’

Jovita Lee, the program director of the North Carolina Black Alliance, told Worldacad that one of her primary concerns with the reinstituted ID law — beyond the fact that it introduces an additional logistical layer — is the confusion it injects into an election year.

“There’s a lot moving around voter ID and election changes in general that folks are missing, because everything’s happening so fast and happening behind closed doors,” she said. “Folks just aren’t clear about what’s going on and what it means for their communities.”

To illustrate this information gap, Lee pointed to her organization’s efforts to help HBCUs apply to get their student IDs authorized for voting. The North Carolina State Board of Elections must approve college student IDs. Some school administrators believed that because they had applied years ago, their college would be automatically included in the new process — but that wasn’t the case.

According to Lee, the North Carolina Black Alliance and its partners have been able to bring all the schools on their list up to speed, but only because they proactively reached out.

“[Legislators] are creating a mandate and telling us to do these different things ahead of the elections, but they’re not doing the legwork of allocating the necessary resources to make sure that folks, and particularly folks from marginalized communities, are ready,” she said. “Had we not been an organization that’s historically engaged with these communities, where would we be?”

The North Carolina Black Alliance maintains a website called Safe Voter NC that it uses to keep people updated about their voting options. For months now, the organization has been hosting workshops across the state that zoom in on what the ID law means both for the upcoming municipal elections and for next year’s presidential election.

Tyler Daye, the policy and civic engagement manager at Common Cause North Carolina, a government watchdog group, echoed Lee’s concerns. He explained that because this is a major change, some education is needed.

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“If people haven’t been following the issue closely, they might not know that when they vote, they must have a photo ID,” he said.

Daye emphasized that funding is another issue. North Carolina legislators have yet to hash out a budget deal, and the State Board of Elections and others are asking for more funding for a variety of things, including outreach efforts and poll worker training.

And even with the news in August that registered voters can now obtain free photo IDs from their local county board of elections if they don’t already have one, advocates are still worried about barriers.

“This is a step in the right direction,” Lee noted. “But the business hours limit isn’t equitable, because the people who will more than likely need these IDs will be the least likely to be able to get them due to the hours.”

She went on, saying that there must be an expansion of times available or another resolution, such as Saturday morning pick-ups, if North Carolina wants to guarantee that it’s done everything it can to ease access to the ballot box.

Additionally, activists want public assistance IDs to be a viable option for voter ID, since, as a trial court put it, “legislators could have reasonably surmised that those forms of ID would be held disproportionately by African American voters.”

The state’s GOP supermajority approved public assistance IDs for voting in 2020. But because they don’t contain a photo, they can’t be used, a fact that’s made the move seem like little more than an empty gesture.

A nationwide movement to undermine voting rights

Crucially, North Carolina, where GOP legislators are expected to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a sweeping restrictive voting bill, isn’t the only state where Black voters’ political power is under siege.

In May, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed SB 7050, which places constraints on third-party voter registration organizations. And just a few months earlier, in January, Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine signed HB 458, which ramps up ID requirements.

Per a June tally by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, at least 11 states between January 1 and May 29 enacted 13 restrictive voting laws — the most in any year in the past decade, save for 2021. Seven of the laws limit mail voting, and the other six establish stricter requirements for photo ID.

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These tactics, which disproportionately disadvantage Black voters, recall the political machinations that were common starting in the latter half of the 19th century. Many white lawmakers met Black suffrage with aggressive, sometimes violent campaigns of voter disenfranchisement and suppression.

In absolute violation of the 15th Amendment, governments in the South following Reconstruction began chipping away at Black men’s right to vote through things such as poll taxes, registration requirements, literacy tests, and understanding clauses.

“The plan,” Carol Anderson, a historian and an African American studies professor at Emory University, writes in her 2018 book, One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy, “was to take years of state-sponsored ‘trickery and fraud’ and transform those schemes into laws that would keep Blacks away from the voting booth, disenfranchise as many as possible, and, most important, ensure that no African American would ever assume real political power again.”

Irving Joyner, a law professor at North Carolina Central University, also detects historical parallels. He’s the former vice chair of the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission, which developed a record of a white mob’s post-Reconstruction ouster of a legitimately elected biracial government, and old enough to remember when Jim Crow chicanery kept the ballot box just beyond Black Americans’ reach.

He explained that nurturing the country’s young and delicate multiracial democracy, which really only dates to 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, requires widening the franchise — not eroding it.

“[Strict voter ID legislation] is an issue that we have to continue to fight and find some resolution to,” Joyner said, “if the voting process is to be fair and open to all citizens, not just to some.”

Brandon Tensley is Worldacad's national politics reporter.