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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Voting Rights Act in North Carolina: Turnout, Registration, Access, and Enforcement

  • Author(s): Willcoxon, Nicole
  • Advisor(s): Lee, Taeku
  • et al.

The 2016 presidential election was the first such contest since 1964 to take place in the absence of a key enforcement provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, namely Section 5 of the Act. Since the Supreme Court controversially suspended implementation of Section 5 in 2013, many states and localities have been transforming the legal and administrative frameworks of their elections, with dramatic implications for voter turnout and access to the franchise, especially for racial and ethnic minorities. The stakes are high: along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act dismantled the legal foundations of white supremacy in the southern United States, and its vigorous enforcement enfranchised millions of black and poor white voters.

Section 5 required that covered jurisdictions obtain prior approval from the federal government for certain changes to its electoral institutions or election administration. In its 2013 decision, the Supreme Court overturned the formula for determining which jurisdictions were covered by Section 5. The coverage formula was originally based on the use of discriminatory “tests or devices,” and voter participation rates in the 1964 presidential election. The formula was renewed four times by Congress, with minor revisions. Overturning this formula in 2013, the Supreme Court in effect suspended the application of Section 5 across 15 states that were covered completely or in part. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority that it was “irrational for Congress to distinguish between States in such a fundamental way based on 40-year-old data, when today’s statistics tell an entirely different story. And it [was] irrational to base coverage on the use of voting tests 40 years ago, when such tests have been illegal since that time” (Shelby County v. Holder 2013).

Do current “statistics tell an entirely different story?” This dissertation examines how Section 5 affected election-related outcomes in a single but important state, North Carolina. North Carolina is a critical case to investigate because it has a distinctive pattern and scope of Section 5 coverage and unusually rich registration and turnout records stretching back decades.

The findings are unambiguous. Section 5 had a positive, independent, and statistically significant effect on voter turnout and registration at its outset and also over time, including in the period just before its suspension. These effects were particularly strong among black North Carolinians. Moreover, the data show that suspending Section 5 in 2013 depressed turnout in the 2016 statewide elections in North Carolina, especially for black voters. The dissertation also investigates the mechanisms for the effectiveness of Section 5 coverage in protecting the franchise, including improved registration rates and polling places per 10,000 voting age persons. Submission patterns suggest that the frequency of county requests to the Department of Justice is positively associated with improved voter access in the covered jurisdictions. The findings of this dissertation have significant implications for theories of U.S. political development, democratization, political behavior, racial politics, and federalism.

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