Federal court to block NC Voter ID requirement before 2020 elections

The Andrew Goodman Foundation, a group that promotes student voting, has filed a federal lawsuit challenging Wisconsin's student voter identification requirements. (MGN)

RALEIGH, NC (WITN) - A federal court said Thursday that it will, at least temporarily, block North Carolina from requiring photo ID at the polls next year.

An order explaining the decision will come next week, with the announcement timed just before a statewide mailing was planned explaining the state's ID rules. Public notice of the decision came in a short note appended to an online case file Thursday in NAACP et al v. Cooper, one of at least two ongoing lawsuits challenging voter ID in the state.

U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Biggs, an Obama appointee, is presiding in the case, which was filed in North Carolina's Middle District and has had hearings in Winston-Salem.

"The court gave advance notice that it will rule with plaintiffs and preliminarily enjoin the photo voter ID law next week," Caitlin Swain, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a Friday morning email. "We are awaiting the full order, gratified that the court is intervening to prevent this discriminatory law from impeding North Carolinians equal access to the ballot."

The decision can be appealed. The State Board of Elections had opposed this injunction, which was requested in September. Republican legislative leaders, who have defended against other election law challenges, aren't part of this case, and Biggs rejected their attempts to get more heavily involved in November, saying that State Board had shown a willingness to defend the law's constitutionality.

State Board spokesman Patrick Gannon said Friday morning that it's up to Attorney General Josh Stein how to proceed unless the board itself votes to take a position. He also said legislative leadership could attempt an appeal.

Attempts to reach spokespeople for Speaker of the House Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger weren't immediately successful Friday morning. Stein spokeswoman Laura Brewer said the Attorney General's Office would wait to review the full order next week before deciding next steps.

Speaker of the House Tim Moore called on the State Board, which the governor appoints, to appeal "this last-minute attempt by an activist federal judge to overturn the will of North Carolina voters."

"To issue an injunction against one of the nation’s most lenient voter ID laws – which 34 states already have – without providing an opinion is an outrageous affront to due process, the rights of North Carolina voters, and the rule of law," Moore said in an emailed statement.

The announcement means the court gave weight to arguments made by several NAACP branches pressing the case and arguing that a voter ID law the General Assembly passed in 2018 is discriminatory, much like a version passed in 2013, which was also struck down by the courts.

Unlike the 2013 law, the 2018 version followed a constitutional amendment that North Carolina voters approved, adding a voter ID requirement to the state constitution. Lawmakers then passed more detailed rules, over Gov. Roy Cooper's veto, to implement that requirement.

The rule, NAACP attorneys said in their filings, would disproportionally affect black and Latino voters, who are less likely to have photo ID.

Proponents of the rule have noted, repeatedly, that free IDs will be made available to those who need them. Voters can also sign an affidavit affirming their identity if they have a "reasonable impediment" to producing photo ID and then cast a provisional ballot.

The law was set to go into effect with next year's elections, and it would also expand the number of poll watchers allowed and loosen requirements for vote challenges.

The NAACP branches said the law violates both the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as Section 2 of the U.S. Voting Rights Act and that it's a "barely disguised duplicate" of the 2013 voter ID law, which the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals found discriminatory.
This version, laid out in Senate Bill 824, "carries the same discriminatory intent as its predecessor, and likewise fails to remedy its racially disparate impacts," the branches said in their filing.

The State Board, represented by the Attorney General's Office, said in a filing opposing the injunction that there are "important distinctions" between the two laws.

"First, under the prior law, county boards did not issue free IDs," the attorney general argued in a motion.

The new law also has a "much broader" reasonable impediment rule than the previous version, the state argued.