Voter ID back in NC courtroom as new trial begins this week

RALEIGH, N.C. — The debate over requiring photo identification to vote is returning to a courtroom this week when a three-judge panel will consider whether the law passed in 2018 violates the state constitution.

The new trial in Holmes, et al. v. Moore, et al. surrounds Senate Bill 824, which was passed by the Republican-led General Assembly almost immediately after the 2018 midterm election which included a proposed constitutional amendment on requiring a photo ID to vote. The amendment, though, still needed clarification from lawmakers on how the practice would work and which IDs would be required.

SB-824, moreover, was passed in the lame-duck session weeks before a new General Assembly -- one without veto-proof GOP majorities -- was to be sworn in. The 2017-2018 General Assembly, as well, was found by a court in a separate case to be apportioned by unconstitutional gerrymandering.

“Why this matters is because there seems to be a consistent and persistent effort to deny the right to vote to certain individuals and certain groups of people,” Rev. Dr. Anthony Spearman, President of the North Carolina NAACP, said. “This was an unconstitutional rogue of villains and thieves that ushered in these heinous laws.”

GOP leaders in charge of the legislature have been trying for most of the decade to advance voter ID, saying that more than 30 states require it and it builds confidence in elections.

“Everyone has a right to vote but everyone also has a right to a secure vote,” Sen. Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus and Union Counties) said. “If illegal votes are happening, if fraud is happening that is canceling out your vote, that’s not free for you, that’s not fair for you and so security has to be a part of it.”

SB-824 was considerably more lenient than the 2013 version by the GOP, which was struck down by federal judges who accused Republican leaders of targeting African-American voters with “almost surgical precision.”

According to SB-824, college IDs would be accepted to vote, including community colleges and private universities. Municipal government IDs that meet state requirements would also be accepted, along with driver’s licenses, military IDs and tribal enrollment cards. The bill, moreover, also drew support from some Democrats.

“When you think about North Carolina you can understand where we’re coming from. We have some of the freest election laws in the nation,” Newton argued. “We start absentee ballots becoming available 60 days before the election -- before any other state in the country. We allow absentee ballot voting for any reason or no reason at all. In North Carolina, we have 17 days of early voting, 18 days of voting, including Election Day.”

Ahead of Monday’s trial, Rev. Spearman expressed confidence in the NC NAACP’s legal strategy, which scored earlier wins in federal court.

Lawyers for the state and local NAACP chapters told a federal court in 2018 that the new voter ID law is a “barely disguised duplicate” of the 2013 voter ID law and “carries the same discriminatory intent as its predecessor,” likely violating the U.S. Constitution.

In a January 2020 ruling, U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs put a pause on the law and said an injunction would be in the public interest, adding, “Electoral integrity is enhanced, not diminished when all eligible voters are allowed to exercise their right to vote free from interference and burden unnecessarily imposed by others.”

Biggs also recognized the history of discrimination in North Carolina.

“No one disputes that North Carolina ‘has a long history of race discrimination generally and race-based vote suppression in particular,’” she wrote, quoting another court case.

The new trial is expected to last two weeks, while a decision from the panel could take longer. The NAACP’s lawsuit in federal court, meanwhile, is scheduled for its next hearing in January 2022.

It’s possible lengthy appeals in both cases could eventually make their way up to the North Carolina Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court, respectively.

Currently, 34 states have laws that require some form of ID at the polls. All of those have survived legal challenges.