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11th Circuit Hears NAACP Challenge to Alabama Voter ID Law

Attorneys representing a state NAACP chapter asked the 11th Circuit on Friday to throw out a district court ruling which dismissed their challenge to Alabama's voter ID law without a trial.

ATLANTA (CN) — Attorneys representing a state NAACP chapter asked the 11th Circuit on Friday to throw out a district court ruling which dismissed their challenge to Alabama's voter ID law without a trial.

The Alabama NAACP, joined by Interfaith group Greater Birmingham Ministries and three individual voters, claims that the state's photo voter identification law was specifically crafted by lawmakers to discriminate against thousands of black and Latino voters.

In January, U.S. District Judge L. Scott Coogler ruled that the 2011 law, which requires absentee and in-person voters to show photo ID in order to cast a ballot, is constitutional.

Coogler found no evidence that the Alabama legislature passed the law with "racially discriminatory intent or for a racially discriminatory purpose."

Under the law, which went into effect in 2014, Alabama voters must present at least one form of photo ID to cast their ballots. The state offers a variety of free methods for obtaining photo IDs, including in-home visits by a mobile ID-issuing unit.

The Alabama NAACP argues that over 100,000 black and Latino voters do not have photo ID and face financial and transportation burdens which prevent them from obtaining one.

Although Coogler acknowledged in the ruling that cases of proven in-person voter fraud are "extremely rare," the judge agreed with Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill's argument that the law was justifiably passed to combat voter fraud and increase "voter confidence."

On Friday, attorneys representing Merrill conceded that only two cases of in-person voter fraud have occurred in Alabama.

Over two million votes were cast in the 2016 presidential election in Alabama alone.

Coogler found that the law does not discriminate on the basis of race because "a person who does not have a photo ID today is not prevented from voting if he or she can easily get one, and it is so easy to get a photo ID in Alabama, no one is prevented from voting."

The district court granted Merrill's motion for summary judgment, dismissing the Alabama NAACP's case before it could ever be heard by a jury.

On Friday, attorneys representing the Alabama NAACP argued that the issue of whether Alabama's voter ID law is discriminatory is not an issue that can be resolved on summary judgment.

Attorney Natasha Merle argued that the district court failed to properly consider evidence of the Alabama legislature's discriminatory intent when it passed the law in 2011.

"But how does the legislature have one intent? How can hundreds of representatives – how can you show what they intended? How do you get to collective intent?" Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Ed Carnes asked.

"There are statements in the record of the bill's sponsor's discriminatory intent. This evidence is sufficient to create a try-able issue," Merle said.

Merle also pointed to racially insensitive comments made by the bill's sponsors, who were allegedly caught on tape referring to black voters as "aborigines" and "illiterates."

Republican Senator Larry Dixon, who tried for years to pass a voter ID law in Alabama, was criticized in 2011 for comments he made to two local news outlets in which he claimed that Alabama's lack of a photo ID law was "beneficial to the black power structure" and "benefits black elected leaders."

Although Dixon retired before the law was passed, his comments re-surfaced and were used as evidence by the Alabama NAACP that the legislature has a history of racially discriminatory motivations.

On Friday, Merle claimed that the Alabama legislature's passage of a wide-ranging anti-immigration bill, which contained a proof of citizenship requirement for voter registration, mere days before the passage of the photo ID law offered further proof of the legislating body's discriminatory intent.

The anti-immigration bill was later invalidated by federal courts.

The same legislature also passed a state legislative redistricting plan in 2012 which was found unconstitutional in 2017. A federal court ruled that the plan was predominately motivated by race.

But attorneys representing Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill argued that the law is not discriminatory and asked the three-judge 11th Circuit panel to affirm the district court's ruling.

"The undisputed evidence shows that every Alabama voter can get an ID. It's just as easy for black voters as white voters," attorney Jim Davis said.

"The Alabama of today is not the Alabama that had the literacy test," he added. "Look at the context in which Alabama proposed this law. There's over thirty states with voter ID laws."

Even if the 11th Circuit sides with the Alabama NAACP and remands the case for trial, it may be difficult to keep a voter ID law off of Alabama's books for long.

"Your case rises and falls on whether the legislature had discriminatory intent," Carnes told attorneys representing the Alabama NAACP.

"Let's suppose we strike this law down and a new legislature comes in and enacts the same law but says they do not have discriminatory intent. Is that okay? With new sponsors? Let's say it's a 100 percent black legislature. It would be constitutional. This legislation is constitutionally permissible," he said.

Carnes pointed to the Supreme Court's 2008 ruling in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, which found that deterring voter fraud is a legitimate policy for states even if there is no evidence that voter fraud is occurring.

The judges did not indicate when they might render a decision in the case.

In a July 26 statement, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund reiterated their demand that the case should go to trial.

"Black and Latino Alabamians face multiple hurdles to obtaining photo ID to vote," attorney Deuel Ross said. "The testimony from our clients, elected officials, and experts clearly showed that over 118,000 people lack acceptable ID and that this law has prevented thousands of people from voting. Our clients deserve their day in court to present this evidence at trial."

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