Why a state court ruled NC’s voter ID law is racially discriminatory and unconstitutional

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Republican lawmakers in North Carolina wrote the state’s voter ID law with the intent, at least in part, to make it harder for Black residents to vote, a panel of state judges ruled on Friday.

There’s no evidence that legislators who supported the law were motivated by racism, the judges wrote. But it’s still discriminatory to target Black voters, they said, even if it’s done for purely political reasons.

In this case, the political motivation was that Black voters almost universally support Democratic politicians, they said.

“In reaching this conclusion, we do not find that any member of the General Assembly who voted in favor of (voter ID) harbors any racial animus or hatred towards African American voters, but rather ... that the Republican majority ‘target[ed] voters who, based on race, were unlikely to vote for the majority party. Even if done for partisan ends, that constitute[s] racial discrimination.’”

Friday’s ruling was issued by a panel of three Superior Court judges from across the state, instead of just one judge, which is how North Carolina handles all trials involving constitutional law. The judges presided over a week-long trial in the case in April that focused on broad issues of systemic racism in addition to the more specific facts of the case.

The ruling, along with witnesses’ testimony at trial, “highlighted how the state’s Republican-controlled legislature undeniably implemented this legislation to maintain its power by targeting voters of color,” Allison Riggs, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice co-executive director, said in a press release on Friday.

She was lead attorney for voting-access activists who challenged the law in this case.

History of voter ID in NC

The ruling strikes down a voter ID law that lawmakers wrote in 2018, after voters statewide approved the general idea during the 2018 elections, on a ballot referendum for a constitutional amendment. That amendment passed with over 55% of the vote.

Lawmakers rushed to pass the law during a lame-duck session after the 2018 elections, because Democrats that year flipped enough seats in the legislature to erase the GOP’s veto-proof supermajority.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill, but because it was passed before those additional Democratic lawmakers were sworn in, Republicans were able to override the veto.

Opponents to the voter ID law sued almost immediately, and judges at both the state and the federal levels agreed in late 2019 or early 2020 that the law did appear to be unconstitutional. A federal case is still pending.

And Friday’s ruling doesn’t necessarily end the state lawsuit, since a lawyer for N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore criticized the judges and said they plan to appeal.

“Once again, liberal judges have defied the will of North Carolinians on election integrity,” said Moore attorney Sam Hayes in a press release. “Voters of this state have repeatedly supported a voter ID requirement – going so far as to enshrine it in our state constitution.”

The ruling comes after a previous attempt by GOP lawmakers in 2013 to enact a different voter ID law was also struck down as unconstitutional, in 2016. That 2016 court ruling said North Carolina Republican lawmakers had targeted Black voters “with almost surgical precision” in the way that the law had been written.

The ruling Friday was 2-1, with Wake County judge Vince Rozier and Durham County judge Michael O’Foghludha in the majority.

Catawba County judge Nathaniel Poovey dissented, writing that the voter ID law “was a bipartisan bill that was supported along the way by multiple African American legislators and enacted after the people of our state approved a constitutional amendment calling for voter-photo-ID requirements.”

Rozier and O’Foghludha are Democrats and Poovey is a Republican.

The fight over Voter ID

Most states have some sort of voter ID law. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 35 states require ID to vote.

But not all of them require a photo ID as North Carolina had proposed. There are 18 states that require photo IDs, while other states will accept documents like utility bills as proof of identity.

Among the states that require a photo ID, there are also wide variations in what kinds of IDs are acceptable. In their ruling Friday, the judges wrote that lawmakers who supported voter ID in North Carolina could have accomplished all of their stated goals without making the rules as strict as they did — which showed that disenfranchisement was the goal of the law, not security.

“Other, less restrictive voter ID laws would have sufficed to achieve the legitimate nonracial purposes of implementing the constitutional amendment requiring voter ID, deterring fraud, or enhancing voter confidence,” the judges wrote.

Supporters of voter ID frequently point to concerns about voter fraud, while opponents say it’s just intended to stop minorities and college students from voting since they tend to vote Democratic.

There is very little evidence of voter fraud anywhere in the country. Nearly every state in the country conducts post-election audits of the results after every election. Some go a step further, like a detailed audit North Carolina compiled after the 2016 election of every allegation of someone possibly voting illegally.

Officials found 508 possible fraud cases out of 4.8 million votes in that audit and concluded that even if every allegation turned out to be true, no outcomes would be affected. Only one of the 508 allegations involved someone impersonating another voter at the polls — the type of fraud that voter ID would stop.

In that case, The News & Observer reported, a woman in Catawba County admitted to pretending to be her recently deceased mother to cast another ballot for Trump. The local district attorney, a Republican, declined to prosecute her.

Instead of finding voter impersonation, nearly all the cases found in that post-2016 audit were accusations of people with felony records voting before they got off of probation or parole. That’s another topic that North Carolina courts have been addressing recently, with a ruling last month from a different three-judge panel that the state’s felon disenfranchisement rules are unconstitutional.

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