RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina judges struck down the state’s latest photo voter identification law on Friday, agreeing with minority voters that Republicans rammed through rules tainted by racial bias as a way to remain in power.
Two of the three trial judges declared the December 2018 law is unconstitutional, even though it was designed to implement a photo voter ID mandate added to the North Carolina Constitution in a referendum just weeks earlier. They said the law was rushed and intentionally discriminates against Black voters, violating their equal protections.
The law “was motivated at least in part by an unconstitutional intent to target African American voters,” Superior Court Judges Michael O’Foghludha and Vince Rozier wrote in their 102-page order.
“Other, less restrictive voter ID laws would have sufficed to achieve the legitimate nonracial purposes of implementing the constitutional amendment requiring voter ID, deterring fraud, or enhancing voter confidence," the judges added.
The majority decision, which followed a three-week trial in April, will be appealed, Republicans at the legislature said. A state appeals court had previously blocked the law’s enforcement last year. The law remains unenforceable with this ruling.
With a similar lawsuit in federal court set to go to trial this January and another state court lawsuit now on appeal, it’s looking more unlikely that the current voter ID law will be enforced in the 2022 elections.
Allison Riggs, the plaintiffs' lead attorney, praised the decision. Riggs said the ruling reflects “how the state’s Republican-controlled legislature undeniably implemented this legislation to maintain its power by targeting voters of color.”
Republicans have said voter ID laws are needed to build public confidence in elections and to prevent voter fraud, which remains rare nationwide. Many Democrats see the mandates as attempts at voter suppression.
In July 2016, a federal appeals court struck down several portions of a 2013 North Carolina law that included a voter ID mandate, saying GOP lawmakers had written them with “almost surgical precision” to discourage voting by Black residents, who tend to support Democrats.
Lawyers for the voters who sued over the 2018 law said it suffered from similar racial defects as the 2013 law — following a long effort by North Carolina elected officials to weaken African American voting as a way to retain control the General Assembly. The 2013 law was carried out briefly in 2016 primary elections.
GOP legislative leaders and their attorneys disagreed, saying the latest ID rules were approved with noteworthy Democratic support and improved to retain ballot access while ensuring only legal citizens can vote.
The categories of qualifying IDs were greatly expanded compared to the 2013 law to include college student and government-employee IDs. Free IDs also were made available, and people without IDs can still vote if they fill out a form.
Sam Hayes, an attorney for House Speaker Tim Moore, said “liberal judges have defied the will of North Carolinians on election integrity” with the decision. Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger are among defendants in the lawsuit.
“Photo voter ID laws are designed to bolster confidence in elections. Calling this law irredeemably racist does the exact opposite,” Sen. Paul Newton of Cabarrus County said.
In the dissenting opinion, Judge Nathaniel Poovey wrote there was “not one scintilla of evidence” presented that any legislator acted with racially discriminatory intent.
The plaintiffs’ evidence relied “heavily on the past history of other lawmakers and used an extremely broad brush to paint the 2018 General Assembly with the same toxic paint,” Poovey wrote.
But the panel's majority wrote that while they found no legislator harboring racial animus toward Black voters, Republicans targeted voters “who, based on race, were unlikely to vote for the majority party” as the federal court also ruled in 2016.
About three dozen states have laws requesting or requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls, and about half want photo ID only, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Six voters — five Black and one biracial — sued in Wake County court on the same day GOP lawmakers overrode Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the 2018 voter ID bill.
Some plaintiffs testified at trial about difficulties obtaining an ID or voting when the earlier photo ID law was in effect. Lawyers for the GOP said all voters would continue to be able to vote under the 2018 law.
The plaintiffs’ case emphasized the state's history of discriminatory voting laws, as well as an analysis from a University of Michigan professor who said Black voters are 39% more likely to lack a qualifying photo ID than white registered voters. The analysis, however, left out data on some categories of qualifying IDs.
Changes to these and other voting procedures in North Carolina once needed federal preapproval. But a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling meant such “preclearance” actions were no longer required. The 2013 voter ID law was approved shortly after that ruling.