Winston-Salem, N.C. — The requirement to present photo identification to cast a ballot went on trial Monday in a closely watched case that will have legal ramifications for voting across the country this presidential election year.
Inside a federal courthouse here, attorneys for the Justice Department and the NAACP argued that the law passed by the Republican-led North Carolina General Assembly intentionally discriminates against African Americans and Latinos, who disproportionately lack one of the required forms of photo identification.
“The state should be making it easier for people to engage in the fundamental right to vote, not harder,” Michael Glick, a Washington lawyer representing the NAACP, said in his opening statement. Because the voter-ID requirement will make it harder for African Americans and Latinos to vote, Glick said, it is unconstitutional and violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Under North Carolina’s election law, passed three years ago, voters will have to present one of these photo IDs for the first time this year: a North Carolina driver’s license, a special non-operators ID, a U.S. passport, a military ID, a veteran’s ID, a tribal ID from a federally or state recognized tribe, or in certain cases, a driver’s license or non-operator ID issued by another state.
Thomas A. Farr, a lawyer representing North Carolina, argued that there is no evidence that any resident of the state will be unable to vote under the photo-ID law. He said there is a “great deal of dispute” about the data that the NAACP and Justice Department will present, which they say indicates that African Americans are twice as likely as whites to lack a photo ID.
“We’re talking about a very, very, very small group of people who may not have a photo ID,” Farr said, adding that the challengers “just don’t like the policy.”
Since the 2010 midterm election, 21 states have added voting restrictions — and in 15 states, the rules will be in place for the first time in a presidential election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Eight states have strict photo-ID laws.
“Election administrators, voting rights activists and lawyers are watching the North Carolina case very closely,” said Richard L. Hasen, an election-law expert at the University of California at Irvine. “If North Carolina gets a green light from the federal courts to pass this set of laws making it harder to register and vote, then I expect other states with Republican legislators to pass similar laws.”
The trial is being held before U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder, who joined the bench in 2008 after being nominated by President George W. Bush. Schroeder held a three-week trial last summer on the rest of the election law, which reduces the number of days of early voting, disallows people from registering and voting on the same day, stops ballots cast in the wrong precinct from being counted, and ends the practice of pre-registering teenagers before they turn 18. Schroeder has not yet ruled on that case.
The photo-ID trial is expected to last about a week. North Carolina’s snowy and icy conditions affected the first day of trial. Several witnesses were unable to travel to Winston-Salem, including plaintiffs Rosanell Eaton, 94, and her daughter.
Instead, a video of Eaton’s deposition last year was played on computer monitors in the courtroom. The Franklin County, N.C., resident described how she had to make 10 trips to the Division of Motor Vehicles, drive 200 miles and spend more than 20 hours to obtain one of the required forms of voter identification because of discrepancies between the name on her driver’s license and that on her voter registration, along with differences in the birth date on her birth certificate and her Social Security card.
“It was really stressful and difficult, a headache and expensive,” Eaton said.
Three years ago, the Supreme Court, in its 5-to-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, nullified the part of the Voting Rights Act that required North Carolina, nine states and jurisdictions in five other states to get permission from the federal government before enacting new voting laws because of their history of discrimination.
Within a month after the decision, the Republican-led North Carolina General Assembly passed one of the country’s most restrictive voting laws. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory signed it, comparing the requirement of a voter ID to “common practices like boarding an airplane and purchasing Sudafed” and saying the law would help prevent voter fraud.
Glick said in court Monday that there “simply was no evidence of voter fraud’’ and lawmakers “definitely knew that.”A witness in last summer’s trial testified that the State Board of Elections referred two cases of in-person voter fraud to prosecutors from 2000 to 2014.
Last summer, before the first trial was to begin, the North Carolina General Assembly passed an amendment that allows voters to cast provisional ballots if they are unable to obtain specified forms of identification and if they can show they have “a reasonable impediment,” including lack of transportation, illness, lack of a birth certificate or work schedule.
Lawyers representing North Carolina say education and training efforts on the amendment are “robust,” but Glick said in court that the “reasonable impediment” rules are unclear and confusing and will intimidate voters from coming to the polls.
Earlier this month, Schroeder denied a preliminary injunction, ruling against a request by the NAACP to block the law from going into effect until after the March primaries. His ruling means that voters must show a photo ID, beginning with early voting on March 3.
Election-law experts say it could be a sign of Schroeder’s future rulings in this case. Schroeder said the plaintiffs “have failed to clearly demonstrate that they are likely to succeed on the merits,” based on the arguments in their briefs.