Moving Forward or Backsliding: A Causal Inference Analysis of the Effects of the Shelby Decision in North Carolina

Published date01 September 2020
Date01 September 2020
AuthorNadine Suzanne Gibson
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(5) 649 –662
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20915235
Following the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in
1965, Black leaders and media outlets in North Carolina
lauded the landmark legislation as having a “far-reaching
effect” assuring for “the first time in the nation’s history, for
negro citizens in the deep South states to have a part in the
election of the type of person who will hold public office.”1
In contrast, prominent conservative White politicians in
North Carolina such as U.S. Senator Sam Ervin argued that
“the victim to be lynched by the voting bill is the constitution
of the United States.” To Ervin and other prominent Whites,
the “the evil of disenfranchisement” was substituted by “the
new evil of federal political manipulation and the loss of
constitutional guarantees.”2 A half century later, the discus-
sion regarding enforcement of the VRA echoes these same
The VRA and its subsequent amendments were designed
to protect African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and
Native Americans from discriminatory voting practices
(Flores, 2015). Originally signed into law by President
Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965, the VRA has been reau-
thorized four times. The most recent reauthorization in 2006
explicitly states Congress’ intention to “ensure that the right
of all citizens to vote, including the right to register to vote
and cast meaningful votes, is preserved and protected as
guaranteed by the Constitution.”3
Even though there is clear and indisputable evidence of
large increases in Black enfranchisement in the late-1960s
(Fresh, 2018; see Appendix), we know little of the law’s
impact on today’s electorate. That is not to say, however, that
political elites have refrained from making impassioned
statements about the reconsideration of the VRA. Supporters
of the VRA argue it is necessary to prevent retrenchment of
gains made, while opponents of the VRA argue that the law
has become an anachronism of the 1960s. Since the Court’s
ruling in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) declaring a key pro-
vision of the VRA unconstitutional, questions regarding the
merits of the VRA have only intensified.
Emanating from the Fourth Circuit, fierce legal battles
over voting rights continue to rage on in North Carolina. On
May 22, 2017, the Supreme Court invalidated two congres-
sional districts due to race being used as a predominant fac-
tor in the drawing of boundaries. This is shortly after the
Middle District Court of North Carolina invalidated 28 legis-
lative districts due to racial gerrymandering in Covington v.
North Carolina (2016), a case that was then appealed to the
915235APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20915235American Politics ResearchGibson
1University of North Carolina Wilmington, USA
Corresponding Author:
Nadine Suzanne Gibson, University of North Carolina Wilmington, 601 S.
College Road, Wilmington, NC 28403-3201, USA.
Moving Forward or Backsliding: A Causal
Inference Analysis of the Effects of the
Shelby Decision in North Carolina
Nadine Suzanne Gibson1
The Voting Rights Act created a method of oversight called “preclearance,” which was designed to prevent changes in state
and local voting laws that may negatively affect minority groups. Following the ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, however,
preclearance is no longer enforced. This study assesses the impact of recently implemented local voting restrictions on
turnout across various demographic and political subgroups in North Carolina. Unlike other states, preclearance in North
Carolina was implemented at the county level. Two approaches to the regression discontinuity-design are used to estimate
de facto minority disenfranchisement. This study finds that the removal of Section 5 preclearance negatively affected
Democratic primary turnout, but did not affect Democratic vote share. Secondary effects resulting in the removal of Section
5 preclearance may be responsible for disproportionately lower levels of overall turnout in formerly covered counties in
2016. Ultimately, the data suggest minimal effects on minority turnout rates.
preclearance, Voting Rights Act, regression discontinuity-design, turnout

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