Civil rights groups appealed a federal judge’s ruling in North Carolina upholding what they call a “monster voter suppression law,” while election experts said Tuesday that the closely watched case will have legal ramifications for voting across the country this presidential election year.
North Carolina, a battleground state, is considered an epicenter for the nationwide battle over voting rights because its controversial 2013 election law is one of the strictest in the nation.
“If North Carolina can get away with this kind of rollback, I suspect we will see other rollbacks in other states,” said Richard L. Hasen, an election-law expert at the University of California at Irvine and the author of “The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown.”
After two trials, the voting law was upheld late Monday by federal judge Thomas D. Schroeder of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. His decision was praised by North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R), who said in a statement that “this ruling further affirms that requiring a photo ID in order to vote is not only common-sense, it’s constitutional.”
“Common practices like boarding an airplane and purchasing Sudafed require photo ID and thankfully a federal court has ensured our citizens will have the same protection for their basic right to vote,” McCrory said.
But the North Carolina law goes further than requiring a photo ID to vote. It also reduces the number of days of early voting, prohibits people from registering and voting on the same day, stops ballots cast in the wrong precinct from being counted and ends the practice of preregistering teenagers before they turn 18. Although other states have enacted one of these restrictions, such as a voter ID requirement, the North Carolina law is the broadest law that encompasses all the changes.
“This is not a photo ID bill,” said the Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, which sued the state. “The court ruled on the most sweeping, retrogressive voter suppression bill that we have seen since the 19th century and since Jim Crow and the worst in the nation since the Shelby decision.”
The Shelby County v. Holder decision by a divided court effectively nullified the section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required all or portions of 15 states, because of their history of discrimination, to get the approval of the Justice Department or a federal court before making changes in voting laws. North Carolina was one of those states.
Within weeks of the Supreme Court’s decision, North Carolina passed its omnibus election bill, with one legislator exclaiming that the General Assembly was no longer restrained by the “legal headache” of the Voting Rights Act.
Several civil rights groups sued, and a dramatic legal fight followed with mass protests in Raleigh led by the NAACP’s Barber.
One of the plaintiffs is Rosanell Eaton, 94, who said she and her daughter had to make 10 trips to the Division of Motor Vehicles, drive more than 200 miles and spend more than 20 hours to obtain one of the required forms of voter identification because the name on her identifying document, her driver’s license, did not exactly match that on her voter registration.
The Justice Department also stepped into the battle and joined the lawsuit in September 2013. Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson said Tuesday that the department is “disappointed” in the ruling and is still “evaluating its options.”
In his opinion, Schroeder said he was not convinced by the Justice Department’s and civil rights groups’ argument that large numbers of minority voters would be disenfranchised.
“North Carolina has provided legitimate State interests for its voter-ID requirement and electoral system that provides registration all year long up to twenty-five days before an election, absentee voting for up to sixty days before an election, ten days of early voting at extended hours convenient for workers that includes one Sunday and two Saturdays, and Election Day voting,” Schroeder wrote.
Depending on what happens at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, voting rights experts predicted that the North Carolina case could go to the Supreme Court.
Dale Ho, the director of the Voting Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, called Schroeder’s ruling “just the first step in the process.”
“We all expected that this case would be resolved in a higher court,” Ho said. The ACLU represents the League of Women Voters of North Carolina in the case.
In addition to North Carolina, the other most closely watched voting case is in Texas, one of 17 states with more restrictive voting laws in place for the first time in a race for the White House. The Justice Department has also sued Texas.
The state of Texas has the most stringent voter-identification law in the nation and could cut into the turnout of minority voters and young people, according to several election experts.
A federal court in Texas found that 608,470 registered voters don’t have the voter IDs that the state now requires for voting. For example, residents can vote with their concealed-carry handgun licenses but not their state-issued student university IDs.
Last year, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, said that the Texas voter ID law violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But Texas officials then asked for the entire 5th Circuit to review the case en banc, which the court agreed to do last month.
“North Carolina and Texas are the leading cases, and how they end up will have a big effect on the country as a whole,” Hasen said. “The stakes are very high. If North Carolina ultimately succeeds, you will see other states with Republican legislatures pass similarly restrictive voting laws.”