Challenges to voter ID law put North Carolina at center of national battle

North Carolina Gov. McCrory defended the new voter ID law as 'common sense' and popular, but two lawsuits in federal court say the measures will discriminate against African-American voters.

Chris Seward / The News & Observer / AP
The Rev. William Barber (l.), head of the North Carolina NAACP, listens as Penda Hair, one of their lead attorneys, speaks about the NAACP's lawsuit against the recently passed Voter ID bill, in Durham, N.C., on Aug. 13. The American Civil Liberties Union and two other groups have filed lawsuits against the voting reforms.

North Carolina has become the latest legal battleground over voter ID requirements and other election measures that critics say are being enacted to intentionally suppress the African-American vote.

The new law, signed Monday, requires voters to show a driver’s license or other government-issued ID before casting a ballot. It also shortens the period for early voting and eliminates the ability to register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory called the new measure a “common sense law” that he said was supported by a significant majority of the state’s residents.

Others attacked the new measure as an attempt to undermine minority voters’ clout.

Two lawsuits filed in federal court charge that the election changes will have a disparate and discriminatory impact on African-American voters.

The new law “will cause the denial, dilution, and abridgement of African-Americans’ fundamental right to vote,” according to a 32-page complaint filed by the North Carolina NAACP on behalf of minority voters in the state.

The legal papers were submitted shortly after Governor McCrory, a Republican, signed the voter ID bill into law.

A second lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of civil rights and voting groups, does not mention the voter ID provision. Instead, that suit seeks to block other portions of the law that reduce early voting and end same-day voter registration in North Carolina.

“Today’s lawsuit is about ensuring that all voters are able to participate in the political process,” Allison Riggs, of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said of the ACLU lawsuit.

“Taken together, the new restrictions in this law will disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of eligible voters,” she said in a statement.  

Both suits ask federal judges to find that state lawmakers and McCrory are engaging in intentional acts of racial discrimination in violation of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and the US Constitution.

They want federal judges not only to block implementation of the new voter ID law but also to find that the level of discrimination in voting is so egregious that it justifies ordering North Carolina to submit every future election change for pre-approval in Washington.

Lawyers challenging redistricting in Texas are using the same legal tactic, asking the court in San Antonio to find that Texas engaged in intentional discrimination during its recent redistricting process. Such past discriminatory conduct justifies judicial imposition of the VRA’s pre-clearance regime, they say.

The action comes two months after the US Supreme Court invalidated the portion of the VRA that required state and local governments with a history of past discrimination to submit their election changes to Washington before they could implement them. The high court said Congress applied outdated criteria to determine which jurisdictions would be subject to special voting scrutiny.

The law had imposed pre-clearance requirements on nine states and on counties or municipalities in six other states.

The Supreme Court action left in place another section of the VRA that empowers a federal judge to impose the pre-clearance requirements on any state if the judge finds the state has engaged in intentional discrimination in voting.

Supporters of the voter ID law in North Carolina say it is not discriminatory. They defend the new law as a measured means to safeguard the integrity of elections in North Carolina.

“While some will try to make this seem to be controversial, the simple reality is that requiring voters to provide a photo ID when they vote is a common sense idea,” McCrory said when signing the bill into law.

“This new law brings our state in line with a healthy majority of other states throughout the country,” he said.

Opponents of the measure say there is no significant problem with voter fraud in North Carolina that would justify the voter ID burdens imposed on minority voters and others.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act, 40 of North Carolina’s 100 counties were required to obtain federal approval before implementing any voting changes. The North Carolina lawsuits, if successful, would impose that requirement on the entire state for a period of time set by the judge.

“With the stroke of his pen, Gov. McCrory has transformed North Carolina from a state with one of the nation’s most progressive voting systems, where we saw some of the highest voter turnout rates of the last two presidential elections, into a state with the most draconian policies we’ve seen in decades, policies that harken back to the days of Jim Crow,” said Penda Hair, codirector of the Advancement Project, a civil rights group supporting the NAACP litigation.

The lawsuit says that the voter ID law imposes special burdens on African-American voters. It says African-Americans are less likely than other voters to possess a driver’s license or other acceptable ID, and adds that they face disproportionately greater burdens in obtaining such documents.

“As a result,” the suit said, “African-American voters are more likely than other North Carolina voters to have their votes denied, diluted, or abridged [by the new voter ID law].”

Eliminating same-day voter registration and cutting back on the number of early voting days also hits African-America voters harder than others, the suit says.

“These provisions will disproportionately injure African-American voters because African-American voters in North Carolina use same-day registration and early-voting opportunities at higher rates than white voters,” the NAACP suit said. Seventy percent of African-American votes during the 2012 election were cast during the period of early voting, according to the complaint.

Early voting on Sundays is seen as particularly important. Many churches in minority communities run “Souls to the Polls” programs that help transport large numbers of African-American voters to the polls after Sunday services.

The new voter ID law cuts seven days out of the early voting period and eliminates one of two Sundays available for early voting.

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