Federal ruling on N Carolina voting laws bolsters voter ID

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Civil rights and elections attorneys said Tuesday they will appeal a federal court ruling upholding North Carolina’s 2013 major rewrite of its voting laws, a decision that marks at least a temporary victory for another state that requires photo identification to vote.

This week’s ruling came after two trials since July and 20,000 pages of court-filed documents. It rejected arguments by the state NAACP, the U.S. Justice Department, churches and individuals that the election changes approved by the GOP-led General Assembly disproportionately harmed minority voters.

Critics had sued, alleging that North Carolina’s revised voting law was passed to discriminate against poor and minority voters in violation of the Constitution and U.S. Voting Rights Act. While North Carolina has “significant, shameful past discrimination” that extended to voting, the plaintiffs didn’t show the law made it harder for minority voters to cast ballots compared to other groups, the judge ruled.

“North Carolina has provided legitimate state interests for its voter ID requirement and electoral system,” U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder wrote in Monday’s decision, siding with the state’s Republican-led legislature.

It marked a legal win for one of the 30 states that currently have some kind of voter ID rule now in force. Nineteen have a photo ID mandate, according to the ruling.

“We’ve advocated all along that the commonsense voter ID and election integrity reforms that we passed in the General Assembly were constitutional,” said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett. He helped guide the 2013 law through the legislature and said it bolsters the integrity of the voting system.

Lawyers for the state NAACP, the League of Women Voters of North Carolina and others filed notices Tuesday of plans to appeal the 485-page ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Some of the attorneys said Schroeder wrongly determined the provisions didn’t worsen the state’s historical bias against black voters.

“We believe the judge’s decision is wrong,” said the Rev. William Barber, state NAACP president. He called the ruling “almost 500 pages of rationalization for the intentional race-based voter suppression law that everybody knows was written to suppress African American votes.”

Voter ID laws in states such as Indiana, Wisconsin and Georgia have been upheld in court. But pending litigation in North Carolina and Texas could decide whether similar requirements could be struck down based on claims they violate the U.S. Voting Rights Act, a voting law expert said.

The 2011 Texas photo ID requirement is expected to be heard by the full 5th Circuit next month.

“This is really the second generation of voter ID challenges,” said Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California-Irvine School of Law. “If North Carolina ultimately succeeds … I expect to see other Republican-leaning jurisdictions to pass similar laws.”

Starting with this year’s March 15 primary, North Carolina required those voting in person to show one of six qualifying IDs such as a driver’s license, a passport or military identification.

North Carolina’s Division of Motor Vehicles provides free identification cards for those who need them to vote, although past trial testimony described obstacles in obtaining that ID. Legislators subsequently passed changes last summer so that those with a “reasonable impediment” to obtaining an ID — like disabilities, transportation problems or work schedules — could still vote if they signed a form and provide other identifying information.

Schroeder, a judicial nominee of President George W. Bush, wrote the state’s voter ID requirement now serves “legitimate state interests … without imposing a material burden on any group of voters.”

Schroeder also upheld parts of the 2013 law that reduced the number of early-voting days from 17 to 10, eliminated same-day registration during the early-voting period and barred the counting of Election Day ballots cast in the wrong precinct. He focused on numbers showing black voters had higher registration and turnout rates in 2014, when many of the changes were being implemented, compared to the last midterm election in 2010.

“The 2014 data merely confirm what the remaining data suggest: that minorities enjoy equal and constitutionally-compliant opportunity to participate in the electoral process,” he wrote.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys said focusing on the 2014 election to determine the effect of the law doesn’t take into account other factors. They said an expensive U.S. Senate campaign and voter mobilization efforts by opponents of the 2013 law helped boost minority turnout.

Federal courts previously allowed same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting for the 2014 general election while the trial court heard the case. Schroeder allowed such options to continue only through the June 7 congressional primary.

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