WASHINGTON — When North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed a sweeping voter identification law last year, Democrats, civil rights organizations, and the Department of Justice all quickly decried the effort as a blatant attempt to suppress the vote of minorities in the state.
But as the 2014 election draws closer, where vulnerable Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan is up for re-election, minority activist groups see a high potential for the law to mobilize and actually increase voter turnout in a low turnout year, especially among African Americans.
The law's centerpiece, a requirement that all voters present identification, doesn't go into effect until 2016, but a slew of other provisions have caused groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP to sound the alarm bells in advance of November's election. The law limited early voting, got rid of pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, ended same-day registration, and determined that ballots mistakenly case at the wrong precinct but in the right county will no longer be counted. The ACLU and the NAACP filed suit against the state, as did the Obama administration. Attorney General Eric Holder called the provisions "aggressive steps to curtail the voting rights of African Americans," on the part of the state legislature.
While they are battling the law in court, the NAACP has embarked on an aggressive effort to register voters in the hopes that putting the law at the center of their political efforts will have a profound impact on November's election. They are planning on sending 50 volunteers into counties across the state to "engage in intense issue-based voter registration and voter empowerment campaign," said Laurel Ashton, a field coordinator for the group. Other groups too have committed big resources to voter efforts — including Planned Parenthood Action, which plans to spend $3 million in the state.
The NAACP maintains this is a nonpartisan effort — many of their workers are going into counties that are deeply Republican and majority white. But the group has protested strongly against the state's Republican-controlled legislature, including the state's speaker of the house, Thom Tillis, who is the frontrunner to challenge Hagan. Polls have shown the race to be close in the red state where President Obama remains unpopular.
Rev. William Barber, the president of the NAACP in North Carolina, who has spearheaded protests — known as the Moral Monday movement — argues the energy on the ground will have a bigger impact on the Senate race than people realize.
"All the pundits that are looking at this election have not been afforded the time to look at an election with this kind of moral energy around it," he told BuzzFeed. "People can't measure the season we're in and the electorate is much deeper, more informed, and more committed than ever before."
The NAACP has not endorsed Hagan, but in their pitch to voters Barber said the group planned to put the election in the context of the Voting Rights Act — and that the outcome of the election was larger than any one candidate.
Passed 50 years ago, the VRA required among other things, federal approval for changes to voting laws in states with a history of discrimination at the polls, including North Carolina. After the Supreme Court invalidated that portion of the law, North Carolina was able to immediately enact the changes to state voting laws.
Unless Congress passes a new version of the designations, states like North Carolina can continue to make changes without DOJ's approval.
The NAACP is framing Hagan's race as bigger than just her seat.
"Who ever wins in the Senate race they're going to have an impact in the future… of the Voting Rights Act," Barber said. "And who ever is elected we have to hold them accountable but before that people are going to have to measure who they vote for."
Election experts generally agree with Barber's assessment that the voter I.D. law could help rally a frustrated liberal base this year. Progressives in the state have griped about their displeasure with Hagan, but also indicated that defeating Tillis would be a huge motivator to get people to the polls. Hagan has forcefully spoken out about the law and last year had encouraged the DOJ to look into it.
"A number of the provisions of law are not going to be in effect in 2014. In terms of really suppressing turn out, I don't think that's very likely," said Rick Hasen, a law and political science professor at the University of California-Irvine who studies state election laws. "In fact it could provide a means of increasing turnout because one of the things that we've seen is that Democrats will fundraise and get the vote out by pointing out what they call Republican efforts to suppress the vote."
It's not a new playbook: Democrats have sounded the alarm bells over voter I.D laws in 2012 as well, but African American turnout actually surpassed white turnout in that election, according to the Associated Press. And in Georgia, which has had a voter I.D. law in place since 2007, turnout among black voters has steadily increased.
When McCrory signed the law, he argued in an op-ed that the provisions would "strengthen the integrity of North Carolina's election process."
"Even if the instances of misidentified people casting votes are low, that shouldn't prevent us from putting this non-burdensome safeguard in place," he wrote. "Just because you haven't been robbed doesn't mean you shouldn't lock your doors at night or when you're away from home."
Meanwhile, the national GOP is aggressively trying to combat any notion that the actions of the state legislature would hurt state Republicans with African-American voters. They also dispute that the voting laws would be a deciding factor in the Senate race.
The Republican National Committee has set up early in the state, and established an "African-American engagement office" office in Charlotte. The office has dedicated staff on the ground "going door-to-door to start conversations with people who haven't traditionally been Republican voters," said Orlando Watson, the RNC's communications director for black media.
Watson said they were "finding commonality with black voters."
The effort is part of the Republicans' broader — and much covered — venture to correct the poor performance with minority voters.
"We know that issues like voter I.D. don't restrict people from voting," Watson said. "The fact of the matter of is, if you don't have an I.D. in North Carolina, you can obtain one for free. What we're hearing from voters is that they are facing limited opportunities to succeed, they're struggling to get by in this economy so what we're offering them is a positive message not scare tactics."
Watson's colleague, Tara Wall, who serves as the senior adviser for black media, took offense to the question that something like North Carolina's I.D. law could antagonize black voters.
"It's not OK to assume that laws that are designed to protect voters from fraud have bad motives, or that we, as Republicans, are somehow diabolical in our intentions with free and fair elections," she said. "To me that's insulting. We all want free, fair, elections and we believe that's sacrosanct. It's insulting and not acceptable."