North Carolina voter ID law stuck down, judges cite discrimination

A panel of judges on Friday reversed a lower court’s ruling, concluding that a 2013 North Carolina voting identification law was enacted 'with discriminatory intent.'

Chris Keane/Reuters
An election worker checks a voter's drivers license at a polling place in Charlotte, N.C., shortly after a controversial 'Voter ID' law took effect. On Friday, a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled that lawmakers had passed that law ' with discriminatory intent.'

A federal appeals court Friday concluded that a North Carolina voting identification law was enacted "with discriminatory intent" and must be blocked, reversing a lower court’s ruling.

Besides prohibiting North Carolina from requiring voters to show photo IDs in future elections, including this November’s, Friday's ruling by a three-judge panel, all Democratic appointees, also overturned provisions of a 2013 law that ended same-day registration, shortened a month-long early voting period by a week, and prevented voters from casting ballots outside of their precincts.

"The record makes clear that the historical origin of the challenged provisions in this statute is not the innocuous back-and-forth of routine partisan struggle that the State suggests and that the district court accepted," Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote in the decision on behalf of Judges James Wynn and Henry Floyd.

"Rather, the General Assembly enacted them in the immediate aftermath of unprecedented African American voter participation in a state with a troubled racial history and racially polarized voting. The district court clearly erred in ignoring or dismissing this historical background evidence, all of which supports a finding of discriminatory intent," she wrote.

North Carolina’s conservative General Assembly rewrote the state’s voting laws in 2013 to include the ID requirement and other changes. Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, signed the changes into law that year. In April 2016, federal district judge Thomas Schroeder issued a 485-page decision that upheld all of the new voting rules.

“This ruling further affirms that requiring a photo ID in order to vote is not only common-sense, it's constitutional,” Governor McCrory said in a statement at the time. “Common practices like boarding an airplane and purchasing Sudafed require photo ID and thankfully a federal court has ensured our citizens will have the same protection for their basic right to vote.” 

But the U.S. Justice Department, the state NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and others didn’t agree. They sued the state for violating the federal Voting Rights Act and the Constitution.

"This is a strong rebuke to what the North Carolina General Assembly did in 2013. It's a powerful precedent that ... federal courts will protect voting rights of voters of color," Allison Riggs, the lead lawyer for the League of Women Voters, said of Friday's decision, according to the Associated Press. She said the decision will increase participation in the November elections.

Despite the controversy that has played out in North Carolina, some analysts say that the drama over voter ID laws is more about partisan talking points than about facts, as The Christian Science Monitor has reported.

Republicans say voter ID laws are necessary to protect the sanctity of American democracy, because they could prevent identity fraud by ensuring voters are actually who they say they are. To date, 19 states have passed voter ID laws.

On the other hand, Democrats claim that these laws are simply conceived by red states in order to make it harder for Democrat-leaning minorities to vote.

While each side may have a point, research shows that both arguments are quite flimsy. For instance, a sweeping study by constitutional law scholar Justin Levitt found just 31 credible voter impersonation cases out of 1 billion votes cast in the US.

But there’s also scarce evidence that requiring IDs affects the ability to vote, especially in North Carolina, since the state allows people without IDs to vote after swearing to their eligibility in an affidavit.

“On the Republican side, there’s not much evidence that these laws are needed to prevent people from impersonating someone else and casting a ballot, yet most Americans favor these laws, so it’s something you can do as a Republican that people think is a great thing and it doesn’t cost any money,” Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia in Athens told the Monitor in April.

“Democrats then take it and say to minority voters, ‘Hey, look, those Republicans are trying to keep you from voting,’ and that encourages them to go to the polls.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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