Over the last five years, there has been a dramatic rise in states enacting or strengthening laws that require voters to show ID at the polls. Supporters of voter ID laws claim that they are necessary to prevent voter fraud — but studies have consistently shown that this type of fraud is exceptionally rare. And in fact, laws like this disproportionately affect minority, elderly, and low-income groups that tend to vote in favor of progressive causes.
So what do voting rights have to do with the environment? The two issues are more closely tied than you might think. Denying anyone the right to vote prevents their voice from being heard in decisions that directly impact them — including climate and environmental health issues.
Moreover, the historically disenfranchised communities that are affected by voter ID laws are often the same ones that disproportionately suffer environmental harms. Take climate change for example. Communities of color tend to suffer the greatest impacts from climate change — and are often least likely to have the resources available to counteract those harms.
The battleground state of North Carolina has seen itself in the crosshairs of the fight for voting rights, as it had one of the strictest voter ID laws in the nation. With just three months left before the general election, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down this harsh, discriminatory law. The ruling also eliminated the state’s ID requirement, brought back same-day voter registration, and reinstated rules to expand early voting and allow voters to register before they turn 18.
Republican North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory was speaking at a Donald Trump rally when he responded — announcing that he would appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
But North Carolina is not alone is the battle against voter suppression. In the past few weeks, five courts in five states have ruled against voter ID and proof-of-citizenship laws. All of these laws discriminate against communities of color, but North Carolina’s law has been highlighted for being particularly egregious. In fact, in striking down the law, the court said the law was “the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow.” The court argued the intent of the law was not to stop voter fraud, but rather to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision” in order to diminish turnout at the polls.
North Carolina lawmakers were found to have crafted the restriction only after receiving data on voter behavior in the state based on race. In its ruling, the court wrote, “this data showed that African Americans disproportionately lacked the most common kind of photo ID, those issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).”
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The data also suggested that black voters were more likely to participate in early voting. “With race data in hand, the legislature amended the bill to exclude many of the alternative photo IDs used by African Americans. The bill retained only the kinds of IDs that white North Carolinians were more likely to possess,” the court wrote. The judges ruled that North Carolina lawmakers clearly acted with discriminatory intent, adding, “we cannot ignore the record evidence that, because of race, the legislature enacted one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history.”
The state had, in fact, argued in court that “counties with Sunday voting in 2014 were disproportionately black” and “disproportionately Democratic,” and stated this as the reason they eliminated Sunday voting. The court found this to be the “smoking gun” demonstrating the discriminatory intent of the law.
Hector Vaca, a community organizer with Action NC in Charlotte, North Carolina, eagerly anticipated the ruling.
“I am happy with the decision of the 4th circuit. It was clear the law was an attempt to disenfranchise the communities I directly work with,” said Vaca. “These are people who regularly feel like their voice is not being heard. The voter ID law only made matters worse. They are pleased with the ruling, but are now now concerned with the governor’s appeal.”
Similar rulings recently occurred in Texas, Wisconsin, Kansas, and North Dakota. While these cases represent a wave of victories for voting rights groups, there still remain more than a dozen states that have enacted new voting restrictions since 2012. Just as environmentalists take action to keep money out of politics, we should also act to restore voting rights to the disenfranchised.
All voices must have an opportunity to be heard if we are to tackle these problems. The public is increasingly recognizing that the health of our environment is directly tied to the health of our democracy. With this in mind, it’s clear that ensuring the right to vote is critical.
With the election fast approaching, there remains time for appeals and stays, but for the time being, many voting rights advocates are celebrating a series of victories after having suffered losses across the nation.