RALEIGH — The legislature on Thursday passed a package of strict voting measures that may invite a federal lawsuit.
The bills supporters said the measure will restore the integrity of elections and can withstand any challenge under federal law or the state constitution. But critics say the legislation is ripe for a legal challenge.
The Senate gave the bill final approval with a 33-14 vote. The House followed, sending the bill to Gov. Pat McCrory for his signature with a 73-41 vote. As the House tally was read, Democrats stood, held hands and bowed their heads.
The bill was much more expansive than the relatively straight-forward voter ID legislation the House approved in April that allowed students at state universities to use their school identification cards. The Senate changed the House ID provisions and added many more rules that Democrats said would discourage minority, student and elderly voters.
This is about a fear to lose power, said Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley, a Raleigh Democrat. The Senate is afraid.
Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett Republican, said Democrats were fear-mongering, misrepresenting the legislation and its intent.
This bill you have before you is a step (in) improving the integrity of the process of this state, he said.
Lewis was the only Republican to speak on the measure in the House, where Democrats used most of the 2-1/2 hours of debate to recall the fight for voting rights in the 1960s.
The sweeping changes to voting and elections were among the Republicans priorities for the session that is drawing to a close.
The bill requires voters to show photo identification at the polls, and it shortens the early-voting period while expanding the hours polling sites will be open during that time. It strikes the opportunity to register and vote on the same day during early voting, and eliminates pre-registration for teenagers 16 to 17 years old, among dozens of other changes.
Before this summer, the state would have had to go to the U.S. Department of Justice or federal court for pre-clearance of this legislation before enforcing it.
But last month, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated an important part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Section 5, which required states with a history of discrimination toward minority voters to seek Justice Department or court approval pre-clearance before making voting law changes.
The writings on the wall
A justice department spokesman declined to speculate on whether U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder would go after North Carolinas voter ID law, which would be the strictest in the country.
Ive never seen a package of what I would call suppressive voting measures like this, said Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine. I look at this package, and I cant for the life of me see how its justified on voter ID grounds.
Speaking to the National Urban League on Thursday in Philadelphia, Holder said his department has filed a federal court challenge to force Texas to obtain pre-clearance before implementing future voting changes.
He made it clear his office wouldnt stop there.
Even as Congress considers updates to the Voting Rights Act in light of the courts ruling, we plan to fully utilize the laws remaining sections to ensure that the voting rights of all American citizens are protected, Holder said. My colleagues and I are determined to use every tool at our disposal to stand against discrimination wherever it is found.
Holder has said that nearly two dozen new voting laws passed last year in a dozen states significantly impeded voters from casting ballots.
Last year, the Justice Department fought new Texas voter ID and redistricting laws. Two federal courts blocked those laws.
The same could happen in North Carolina, Matt Miller, a former Holder spokesman, said Thursday.
From everything Ive read, the writings on the wall that the North Carolina law is going to draw a DOJ challenge, Miller said. In Texas, the DOJ challenged the redistricting law and voter ID law, and won both.
If you look at the law North Carolina is passing, which is believed to be stricter than Texas, it stands to reason youll see a DOJ challenge there.
Miller said Holder gave a signal Thursday that hes determined to challenge any new voter laws that the office views as discriminatory.
There are a lot of arguments you can make in a legislative setting that get hard to make in court, Miller said. Its hard to argue in court why limiting the times for early voting (as the North Carolina law would do) somehow makes it easier for people to vote.
An assault on voting
Representatives from voter rights organizations across the country say they have watched with amazement this week as North Carolina lawmakers made major changes to election law.
The legislation in North Carolina has become much more than a voter ID bill. It has become a full-scale assault on voting, said Denise Lieberman, senior attorney for Advancement Project, a nonprofit civil rights organization founded in 1999 by civil rights lawyers in Los Angeles and Washington. The vast range of restrictions, cumulatively, create a tremendous chilling effect. It paints a very distressing and dismal picture for voters in North Carolina.
A federal lawsuit would have to clear a high bar, legal experts said. If the bill passes, it could be challenged under a section of the Voting Rights Act that prohibits intentional discrimination in voting. But theres never been a successful challenge brought under this section of the law, Hasen said.
The number and scope of changes may lead the U.S. Department of Justice to challenge the law, said Michael Weisel, a Raleigh lawyer whose firm concentrates on elections and campaign law.
I think this would, in fact, help convince the U.S. Department of Justice to intercede, Weisel said. You are enacting the greatest electoral law change in North Carolina in a generation. Taken collectively, the effect of all these restrictions may very well meet the higher standards.
Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, said the changes disproportionately affect minority voters because minorities are more likely to vote in the first week of early voting, to not have drivers licenses and to vote straight-ticket.
You put all those things together, and its clear that youre making it harder for them to vote, he said. This bill is an invitation for the U.S. Department of Justice to sue North Carolina for trying to limit peoples participation in elections. We in the legislature should be about helping people exercise their liberty, not taking away their freedoms.
Senate Republicans said the legislation can withstand legal challenges.
I am confident that the bill as drafted complies with all court precedents that currently exist, said Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican.
Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Matthews, said the legislation was fashioned after other states voter ID laws, including Indianas, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 2008. Holder should enforce the laws, Rucho said, not make them.