A transcript of testimony from a Department of Justice expert witness created a stir last week due to statements from the expert that argued voter ID laws disproportionately affect African Americans because minorities tend to be less educated and less sophisticated voters. The testimony came during the July hearing of a civil rights lawsuit filed by the DOJ and the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) alleging that North Carolina’s voter ID law violates the constitution by discriminating against black voters.
DOJ and NAACP Challenge Voter ID Law
In July, the DOJ and NAACP filed a federal lawsuit against North Carolina’s voter ID laws arguing that black and other minority voters are negatively impacted by regulations that prevent same-day voter registration and require government issued identification in order to vote. Under the Equal Protection Clause of the constitution, states cannot pass laws that unfairly inhibit minorities from exercising their rights, such as the right to vote. Even laws that do not specifically target minorities can be unconstitutional if the effect on minorities is disproportionately negative when compared to the effect on white Americans.
The longstanding debate on voter ID laws has divided sharply along party lines with Republican lawmakers arguing voter regulations are necessary to prevent fraud and Democrats countering that such laws are discriminatory in nature because minority voters are most affected by the restrictions. With minority voters almost exclusively voting Democrat, political interests underlie the stated arguments and ensure that compromise on the issue is highly unlikely, leaving resolution of the issue in the hands of the federal court system.
The North Carolina based federal judge who heard the case during its initial stages determined that the state’s voter ID laws did not violate the constitution, only to have the ruling reversed on appeal to the Fourth Circuit. Before settling the issue, the Supreme Court, as it did with similar laws in Ohio and Texas, stayed the 4th Circuit’s order to repeal the law, meaning the voter ID restrictions in North Carolina will be in full effect until SCOTUS says otherwise.
Expert Witness Testifies to Black Voter Sophistication
During the July trial in a North Carolina federal court, Charles Stewart, a political science expert witness from MIT hired by the Justice Department, testified that terminating the ability to register and vote on the same day affected black voters disproportionately in part because they are less sophisticated by saying, “Understanding within political science, that people who register to vote the closer and closer one gets to Election Day tend to be less sophisticated voters, tend to be less educated voters, tend to be voters who are less attuned to public affairs. People who correspond to those factors tend to be African Americans, and, therefore, that’s another vehicle through which African Americans would be disproportionately affected by this law.”
Going further, Dr. Stewart went on to speak to the impact that voting laws, including voter ID requirements, have on black populations by saying, “People who have lower education and who have less – that pay less attention to public affairs will have greater problems figuring out how to vote, [and]… My understanding is that African Americans have lower levels of education in North Carolina, and I know from the public opinion work that African Americans report that they paid less attention to public affairs on average than white voters do probably because of the differences the education.” According to Dr. Stewart’s testimony, then, differences in education and less attention to public affairs make minority populations in North Carolina less sophisticated voters which means it is more difficult for them to overcome voter regulations, supporting the DOJ’s argument that voting restrictions unconstitutionally burden minorities and therefore cannot be enforced.
Voter ID Lawsuit Expert Witness Spurs Debate
Although Dr. Stewart’s comments cited social factors as the source of lower sophistication among black voters, opponents of the voter ID lawsuit criticized the political scientist’s testimony as discriminating against the very population the DOJ is trying to protect. With the constitutionality of voter restriction legislation debated both within and without federal courtrooms, expert witnesses like Dr. Stewart not only offer testimony arguing against, or for, enhanced voting regulation, but provide interesting points of debate to legal and social theorists, both academic and casual, across the country.