DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Judges have now been asked to decide whether an elections overhaul in North Carolina requiring photo identification to vote, scaling back early voting and ending same-day registration is discriminatory or permitted under the law.
But the future of the new law signed this week by Gov. Pat McCrory ultimately could be chosen by voters deciding in 2014 whether Republican legislators who wrote the law should be re-elected or turned out of office so Democrats can return to power.
A lawsuit challenging the wide-ranging elections law was filed in state court Tuesday — one day after two federal lawsuits were filed Monday by civil rights and government watchdog groups and like-minded voters within hours of the Republican governor signing the bill. The GOP-led General Assembly passed the bill in the final days of this year’s session last month.
Lawyers who filed some of the lawsuits say they have a strong case to overturn the new law. They argue the law would result in eroding or denying rights for blacks and other minority voters, erecting new obstacles to their casting ballots.
“Each of these individual challenged provisions is illegal, discriminatory and will have an adverse result on African Americans, and collectively when you add all of these things up … the impact is going to be horrendous,” said attorney Penda Hair with the Advancement Project, a Washington-based civil rights organization, speaking at a Tuesday news conference.
Republicans who passed the bill and McCrory disagree. They say the provisions passed are similar to those in a majority of other states. McCrory said Monday in a video message announcing the bill signing the new law would protect the integrity of cast ballots and discourage fraud.
“We are confident that the provisions of this measure will be upheld by the judicial system,” said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, who helped shepherd a voter ID bill through the House this year. “This measure creates certainty and consistency in North Carolina’s election process, and satisfies the public’s broad support for a voter photo-ID system.”
Hair is a lead attorney for one federal lawsuit filed by the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and voters. The plaintiffs include longtime activists in the civil rights group such as 92-year-old Rosanell Eaton of Louisburg, a poll worker or precinct judge for decades who registered to vote in rural Franklin County despite Jim Crow restrictions.
“We need more voting, instead of less,” Eaton said at state NAACP headquarters in Durham.
The other federal lawsuit from the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, Common Cause North Carolina and others was filed Monday with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
Unless the law is blocked, in-person early voting period will be reduced from 17 to 10 days before an election and same-day registration will end in 2014. Both have been used disproportionately by black voters compared to registered voters as a whole, one lawsuit says.
Starting with 2016 elections, the law would require voters to provide one of seven acceptable forms of photo ID to vote in person. Many expired IDs would still work for the oldest adults and people who don’t have an ID can get one for free through the Division of Motor Vehicles.
The League of Women Voters and others who sued Tuesday afternoon in Orange County court specifically challenged the photo ID provisions. The lawsuit contends the requirements create a new qualification for voters not contained in the state constitution.
The federal lawsuits allege the new law violates the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act, a significant portion of which was struck down in June.
Guy-Uriel Charles, a Duke University law school professor, said the plaintiffs might have the best chance to strike down parts of the law to reduce early voting and end same-day voter registration. He said he hasn’t heard much from Republicans to justify why those changes are needed. But proving intentional discrimination, a key element in many voting rights claims, “is extraordinarily hard,” Charles said.
Photo ID requirements to vote have been upheld in other states.
“It’s not going being to be easy,” said Charles, director of Duke’s Center on Law, Race and Politics.
Charles said those challenging the law would benefit should U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder get involved. Holder said in July the U.S. Justice Department would challenge a new voter ID law in Texas. Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and Rep. G.K. Butterfield have asked Holder to scrutinize the law.
Any court ruling is likely to be appealed, meaning it could be 2015 before a final ruling on the law. The future of the new voting restrictions may be decided by the voters in November 2014, when all 170 General Assembly seats are up for re-election.
Opponents of photo ID requirements and more voting restrictions, which have coalesced around the “Moral Monday” demonstrations in recent months at the Legislative Building, are aiming to influence next year’s elections. Many Republicans ran on a platform on more voter safeguards they said the public supports.
Charles said: “This issue may simply be dealt with at the ballot box.”
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