North Carolina Appeals Court Blocks Voter ID Law

RALEIGH, N.C. (CN) – A North Carolina appeals court temporarily blocked implementation of the state’s voter identification law Tuesday, finding that its requirements likely discriminate against African American voters. 

In a 45-page opinion reversing a trial court ruling, a three-judge panel of the appeals court sided with a group of voters who brought the class action case against state legislators and election officials over a November 2018 amendment to the state’s constitution. The amendment required voters to present a certain type of photo ID before casting a ballot.  

“As Plaintiffs have shown, the voter-ID provisions likely will have a negative impact on African Americans because they lack acceptable IDs at a greater rate than white voters,” Judge Toby Hampson wrote for the panel.

While ten types of identification are considered acceptable under the disputed law, including passports, military IDs and tribal enrollment cards, critics say it excludes types of ID disproportionately used by African Americans including community college and public assistance IDs. 

The new ruling will not change the process for voting in the March 3 primary or early voting for that primary, which is currently underway, because a federal judge had already granted a request by chapters of the NAACP to block implementation of the ID law through the primary. Tuesday’s ruling could, however, extend the block through the November 2020 election.

During midterm elections in November 2018, about 55% of North Carolina voters opted in favor of the amendment. The specifics as to how it would be implemented – and which types of ID would be accepted – were left to the Republican-led General Assembly to determine. 

After overriding a veto by Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, the North Carolina General Assembly passed the legislation implementing the amendment, Senate Bill 824, in December 2018. 

On the same day the bill passed, a group of voters filed a complaint challenging its constitutionality in Wake County Superior Court. 

The plaintiffs say the legislation, known as “An Act to Implement the Constitutional Amendment Requiring Photographic Identification to Vote,” unfairly targets African Americans and violates the Equal Protection Clause of the state’s Constitution. The voters claim the bill was “enacted with racially discriminatory intent.”

A three-judge panel in Wake County denied the plaintiffs’ request to stop the new law on July 19, 2019, a decision the appeals court reversed Tuesday.  

The amendment gave the General Assembly authority to make exemptions to the voter ID rule, and the appeals court judges say the lawmakers’ failure to include certain forms of IDs among those exemptions was “motivated in part by the fact that these types of IDs were disproportionately owned by African American voters.”

Defendants in the case had argued that anyone can obtain free IDs, rendering the bill harmless to voters.

“Plaintiffs, however, presented evidence showing the burdens of obtaining a free ID are ‘significant . . . [and] fall disproportionately on voters of color,’” Hampson wrote. 

The opinion cited Noah Read, a member of the Alamance County Board of Elections, as an example of someone who had faced such burdens. Read said in an affidavit that because of his location and lack of transportation to the County Board of elections office, “I think that providing free Voter IDs … will do little to make it easier for Alamance County citizens who do not have ID from the DMV to obtain a free ID for voting.”

Jabari Holmes, Fred Culp, Daniel E. Smith, Brendon Jaden Peay, Shakoya Carrie Brown and Paul Kearney Sr. are listed as plaintiffs in the case. 

The defendants had argued that the lower court decision should not be overturned because the voters who brought the case would still be able to vote under the new ID law but the appeals court judges disagreed, writing that the legislators “missed the point” of the lawsuit.  

“Also persuasive is the fact S.B. 824 was passed in a short timeframe by a lameduck-Republican supermajority, especially given Republicans would lose their supermajority in 2019 because of seats lost during the 2018 midterm election,” Hampson write.

According to the opinion, the law was passed with little public input and “without further study of the law’s effects on minority voters,” even after a similar bill had recently been struck down in the state. 

In the federal court ruling granting the NAACP plaintiffs a preliminary injunction enjoining enforcement of the bill’s voter ID provisions through the primary, the judges in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina concluded that the plaintiffs had shown a likelihood of success on their claim that these provisions were “impermissibly motivated, at least in part, by discriminatory intent in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution.”

That injunction will remain in place during the March 3 primaries, meaning no photo ID will be required at the polls during that election, but as that injunction is only temporary, the appeals court believe their injunction is now necessary. 

“While the future of that injunction and litigation is uncertain, enjoining the law during the litigation of this action, which the parties acknowledged would still be ongoing after these primaries, further helps prevent voter confusion leading up to the general election this fall and during the pendency of this litigation, which voter confusion has a strong potential to negatively impact voter turnout,” Hampson wrote.  

Judge John Arrowood and Judge Allegra Collins joined Hampson on the panel.

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