Challenge to North Carolina's new voter ID requirement goes to trial

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — Trial in a federal lawsuit challenging North Carolina's new voter identification law finally began on Monday, with a civil rights group alleging its photo requirement unlawfully harms Black and Latino voters.

The non-jury trial started more than five years after the state NAACP and several local chapters sued over the 2018 law, saying the photo requirement and two other voting-related provisions violate the U.S. Constitution — because lawmakers enacted them with discriminatory intent — and the Voting Rights Act.

The litigation, along with a similar lawsuit in state court, delayed implementation of the requirement until last year’s municipal elections. The 1.8 million voters who cast ballots in March primaries also had to comply. State election data showed that less than 500 provisional ballots were ultimately not counted in the primary because of ID-related issues.

The NAACP plaintiffs argue that some voters have already have been “caught up in the traps of the law" or were deterred from even coming to the polls in the first place, attorney Kathleen Roblez said during opening statements.

“This case is about impermissible and intentional racial discrimination,” Roblez told U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs, adding the requirement “has already produced a discriminatory result for Black and brown voters," who she said are less likely to hold qualifying IDs.

But an attorney representing Republican legislative leaders who helped enact the law said that it's one of the most permissive voter ID requirements among states that have passed them, with free IDs available and exceptions for voters who can't readily obtain one. Legislators passed the law over Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto mere weeks after voters approved a constitutional amendment directing a photo ID mandate.

“A legislature bent on discriminating would not have created all of these exceptions,” David Thompson, one of the GOP leaders' lawyers, said in a Winston-Salem courtroom where the trial is expected to last several days. “The General Assembly was compelled by the people of North Carolina to enact a voter ID law.”

Biggs already has signaled that she won’t immediately rule from the bench. A favorable ruling for the NAACP could block the requirement in the fall. The November general election — with races for president, governor and other statewide seats — could see turnout three times greater than the primary. And the nation’s ninth-largest state is a likely presidential battleground where statewide races are often close.

Roblez said it is suspect to cite the constitutional amendment in justifying passage of the voter ID law because it was put on the ballot by General Assembly members at a time when many legislative districts were declared by federal judges to be illegal racial gerrymanders.

Roblez said the NAACP will present data showing Black and Latino voters are more than twice as likely to lack a qualifying ID with a photo than white voters. They plan to bring in witnesses who will say they encountered voting problems in the March primary. Thompson said that by total number, not percentage, there are more white voters who don't have such an ID.

Thompson, who is representing House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger, and a state attorney representing the State Board of Elections members also defending the law in court said the rules impose only a minimal burden on voters.

The law greatly expanded the number of qualifying IDs compared to what was approved in a 2013 voter ID law used briefly until federal judges struck it down as discriminatory. Free IDs are provided by county election and Division of Motor Vehicles offices, and people lacking photo ID at the polls should have their votes count if they fill out an exception form or bring in their ID to election officials before the final tallies.

The GOP leaders also argue the General Assembly had legitimate state interests in passing the law: to build voter confidence in state elections and to prevent voter fraud. Still, nationwide voter identity fraud is rare.

State NAACP President Deborah Maxwell, the plaintiffs' first witness, testified that the ID requirement makes it harder to vote and forced her group to allocate additional resources to make sure registered voters had a qualifying ID. She said free IDs from government offices only open on weekdays doesn't help working people who only have weekends free.

Biggs, who was nominated to the court by President Barack Obama, issued a preliminary injunction in late 2019 blocking enforcement of the law, saying it was tainted because the 2013 law had been struck down on similar grounds of racial bias. But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed her decision, writing that she had put too much emphasis on the past conduct of the General Assembly when evaluating the 2018 law.

In a separate state lawsuit, the state Supreme Court last year upheld the 2018 law, which allowed the State Board of Elections to implement it months later. The now Republican-controlled court reversed a previous Supreme Court decision striking down the law when Democrats held a majority of the court's seats.

Thirty-six states have laws requesting or requiring identification at the polls, 21 of which seek photo ID, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.