by Anne Blythe
Whether N.C. voters will have to show a photo ID in 2016 will depend on whether opponents can show why they shouldn’t have to.
That test begins Friday when critics of the 2013 election law overhaul argue that the ID requirement violates the North Carolina Constitution.
North Carolina residents and voting-rights organizations challenging the state’s voter ID requirement contend that voters, not lawmakers, hold the power to make such a change to election law. Voters, they say, would have to approve an amendment to the state Constitution.
In a hearing scheduled to take place in Wake County court on Friday, attorneys for the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute and five female voters plan to argue that lawmakers overstepped the bounds of the state Constitution when they overhauled election laws in 2013.
Friday’s hearing focuses on the voter ID requirement scheduled to go into effect in 2016.
Voters will be required to show one of seven photo identification cards included on a list of acceptable IDs, according to the legislation. State-issued student ID cards are not on the list.
The NAACP and others who have sued the state asking for the 2013 election overhaul to be declared unconstitutional have pursued legal challenges on two tracks.
The challengers have filed lawsuits in federal court arguing the changes made in 2013 discriminate against African-Americans, Latinos and voters younger than 25.
North Carolina lawmakers who support the changes say voter IDs are needed to prevent election fraud. But there have been few cases of voter fraud.
A trial in federal court is scheduled for July.
While that case makes its way through the federal system, Press Millen, an attorney with Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice in Raleigh, and lawyers from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice will test different arguments in state court.
Millen contends that the first article of the state Constitution governs voter qualifications. That article was adopted in 1868 when North Carolina was under military rule in the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.
The qualifications set out there are minimal, said Millen, who represents the challengers. They require only a residency period, registration and that a person not be a felon, unless the rights of citizenship have been restored.
The North Carolina Constitution, Millen said, “explicitly allows the General Assembly to “enact general laws governing the registration of voters,” and over the past 147 years pages and pages of laws related to that topic have been added to the General Statutes.
In contrast, voter qualifications, he said, are strictly off limits.
Attorneys for the state plan to argue otherwise.
They hope to persuade Michael R. Morgan, the Wake County Superior Court judge tapped to preside over the case, to dismiss it.
Attorneys for the critics of voter ID plan to bring up several North Carolina cases – including one from 1992 and another from 1875 – in which the courts struck down laws related to qualifications for elected office.
Voter ID laws have been the subject of many court hearings across the country in recent years.
The laws date back to 1950, when South Carolina became the first state to request identification from voters at the polls. Photos, though, were not required. Any document with the name of the voter sufficed.
Recent movement to IDs
Since 2011, a dozen Republican-led states have passed strict voter ID requirements, though some have been blocked by courts.
Republicans have described the measures as needed to increase confidence in elections, but critics have described them as the modern equivalent of a poll tax, or fee for voting, designed to suppress turnout by Democratic voters.
Critics claim the ID requirements weigh more heavily on specific classes of voters – people of color, students, low-income voters and the elderly.
A 2013 study by the state Board of Elections found that several hundred thousand registered voters lacked photo IDs. The study attempted to match North Carolina voter registration records to records at the state Division of Motor Vehicles of driver’s licenses and state-issued photo ID cards.