Could voter ID law tilt North Carolina Senate race? Foes decry judge's ruling

North Carolina voters without photo ID won't be turned away from the polls this November, but they will be asked to sign an acknowledgment of the new ID requirement – a step critics worry will make for longer lines to vote.

Chris Seward/The News & Observer/AP
The Rev. William Barber, head of the North Carolina. NAACP, left, listens as one of the lead attorneys, Penda Hair, speaks as they announces that the group is filing a lawsuit against the recently passed Voter ID bill during a press conference held in Durham, NC on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013. A federal judge upheld the voter ID law on Aug 8, 2014.

Lawyers seeking to block a voter identification law in North Carolina expressed disappointment Monday at the recent ruling by a federal judge in Winston-Salem that upheld the ID law and other restrictions for the November election.

The North Carolina election is being closely watched in part because of the tight race between incumbent US Sen. Kay Hagan and her Republican challenger, Thom Tillis.

The outcome could tip the balance of power in the US Senate in favor of one party or the other. Thus, any factor that might influence voting is under intense scrutiny.

The new voter ID law is one such factor, even though it does not take full effect until January 2016.

Opponents of the law are concerned that it could confuse voters and cause some to stay home.

In a ruling late Friday, US District Judge Thomas Schroeder refused to issue a preliminary injunction to block the 2013 state voter ID law.

But the judge also rejected a motion by North Carolina officials that sought the complete dismissal of legal challenges to the new law.

Instead, Judge Schroeder ruled that the plaintiffs had raised “plausible claims” about the potential discriminatory intent and impact of the new voting requirements. He said those claims would be examined during a civil trial set for July 2015.

“We are disappointed that the court did not enter a preliminary injunction,” Penda Hair of the Advancement Project, told reporters in a teleconference Monday.

She said that she and other lawyers representing the North Carolina NAACP were “confident” that the judge would rule for them after the July 2015 trial.

“This opinion is not fatal to our efforts,” said Irving Joyner, a professor at North Carolina Central University School of Law and a member of the NAACP litigation team.

“African Americans will have to work harder because of this law, and they will bear a disproportionate burden,” he said.

At issue is a state statute passed last year by the Republican-controlled legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Supporters say the new law helps safeguard against voter fraud.

Democrats in the state object to the new ID requirements and charge that it is designed to suppress voting by poor and elderly residents who are less likely to be able to obtain a required form of identification.

The photo ID law requires would-be voters to present a driver’s license, military identification card, or a free state-issued identification card before casting a ballot.

Those who are unable to present valid photo ID are allowed to cast a provisional ballot pending production of an acceptable form of ID.

To prevent excessive disruption at the polls, lawmakers delayed implementation of the photo ID requirement until January 1, 2016.

Nonetheless, opponents object to the so-called “soft rollout” of the measure.

Even though state residents will be able to vote without showing ID until 2016, the new law requires poll workers to ask voters if they have the required ID. If they don’t, they will be asked to sign an acknowledgment of the new ID requirement and receive information about how to obtain acceptable identification.

Opponents object to the “soft rollout” requirements, arguing that they might result in long lines at the polls and could discourage some voters in November who might think, wrongly, they need ID to vote.

In rejecting these arguments, Schroeder said the “soft rollout” provision appeared to have been patterned on the recommendations of a bipartisan election commission chaired by former President Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker.

The commission recommended that any photo ID requirement be phased in over two federal election cycles and that IDs be easily available and issued free of charge.

“Plaintiffs have not made a clear showing that [the photo ID law’s] notice provisions for the implementation of the requirement, which does not become effective until 2016, will cause irreparable harm in the upcoming November 2014 general election,” the judge said.

He added: “Arguments about longer lines are speculative; there is no showing that the ‘soft rollout’ will cause confusion or undue lines during the November 2014 election.”

In addition to photo ID, the new law reduces the number of days available for early voting from 17 days to 10 days.

Under the new provision, the law requires that there be no reduction in the total number of hours of early voting from prior elections.

The end result is that there will be seven fewer days to vote early but the polls will remain open longer hours during the 10-day early voting period.

The US Department of Justice joined the plaintiffs seeking to block the new law. Government lawyers argue that the new law violates the Voting Rights Act and other constitutional protections.

The judge rejected a request by the Justice Department to send observers to North Carolina for the November election.

Joyner said civil rights groups in the state were working on a voter mobilization plan in advance of the fall election. He said the plan was aimed at conveying to the public “the urgency of this election and the fact that there is a full court press that is designed to undermine the rights of African Americans and other minorities.”

He added: “We have to fight this battle in the street and in the election booth.”

Ms. Hair said lawyers for the NAACP were examining a possible appeal of the judge’s decision not to issue an injunction.

The case is North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP v. McCrory (13cv658). 

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