Court strikes down N.C.’s voter-ID law, says it targeted voters ‘based on race’

A law to require voter identification in North Carolina discriminates against Black voters, making it unconstitutional, according to a 2-1 Superior Court ruling Friday in Wake County. 

Citing a federal court ruling, the judges explained that the decision did not find “any member of the General Assembly who voted in favor of S.B. 824 harbors any racial animus or hatred towards African American voters,” but instead that the Republican majority targeted “voters who, based on race, were unlikely to vote for the majority party.” They said that constitutes racial discrimination “even if done for partisan ends.”

Under the ruling, no voter will be required to produce identification to cast a ballot in the next election.

The judges left the door open for legislative defendants to rewrite the law, noting “less restrictive voter ID laws would have sufficed to achieve the legitimate nonracial purposes of implementing the constitutional amendment requiring voter ID.”

Legislators can also appeal the decision to the state’s higher courts. Because a loss in the Democratic-majority state Supreme Court could create precedent against identification, legislators have declined to appeal related voter identification cases in the past. 

The decision is the latest in a string of court battles over voter ID laws in North Carolina. After federal courts struck down a previous version of the state’s voter ID law for targeting Black voters for disenfranchisement, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a proposed voter ID amendment to the state Constitution, which voters approved. 

In 2018, that same Republican-led legislature passed the law the court addressed in the current ruling, which put the constitutional amendment into effect. In Friday’s decision, two Democratic judges, Michael O’Foghludha and Vince Rozier, struck down the 2018 law. 

The advocacy group that brought the lawsuit, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, praised the ruling and recognized that the legislature is likely to appeal, issuing a press statement that the decision sends “a strong message that racial discrimination will not be tolerated.”

Republican Superior Court Judge Nathaniel Poovey, dissented, writing that the law was not racially discriminatory because it was passed with bipartisan support, including input from African American legislators.

Poovey’s dissent said the bill should not be judged on the merits of the state’s previous voter ID law, which federal courts found targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.” Because the current voter ID law is constitutionally required, it has a stronger position than previous legislation, according to the dissent. 

Republican House Speaker Tim Moore issued a statement Friday afternoon indicating plans to appeal. The statement quoted the speaker’s general counsel, Sam Hayes, who pointed to Poovey’s dissent: “In his dissent, Judge Poovey noted that ‘not one scintilla of evidence was introduced during this trial that any legislator acted with racially discriminatory intent.’ In fact, the bill was co-sponsored by African American state Sen. Joel Ford.”

Hayes also noted voter support for voter ID and said the law had been modeled on voter ID laws in other states. He said plaintiffs had not produced any witnesses who wouldn’t be able to vote if the law had been allowed to go into effect.

North Carolina’s Constitution, like most state constitutions, has stronger protections for the right to vote than the federal Constitution, according to Joshua Douglas, an election law professor at the University of Kentucky. 

Other lawsuits related to North Carolina’s voter ID law are still pending in the courts. The state chapter of the NAACP is also suing to block the voter ID law in federal court, and that trial date is scheduled for January. 

Another case from the NAACP, arguing that the constitutional amendment was illegally placed on the ballot before North Carolina voters in 2018, was scheduled for the state Supreme Court at the end of August but was taken off the calendar without explanation. If the plaintiffs were to win that case before the state’s highest court, it would make the arguments about the actual law enacting the amendment moot.

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