U.S. Justice Department suit aims to stop NC voter ID law

sharrison@charlotteobserver.com ablythe@newsobserver.comSeptember 29, 2013 

The U.S. Department of Justice will file a lawsuit Monday to stop North Carolina’s new voter ID law, which critics have said is the most sweeping law of its kind, according to a person briefed on the department’s plans.

Attorney General Eric Holder, who has said he will fight state voting laws that he sees as discriminatory, will announce the lawsuit at noon Monday, along with the three U.S. attorneys from the state.

Critics said the law will disenfranchise African-American and elderly voters, while the Republican-led General Assembly in Raleigh said the law will protect the state’s voters from potential fraud.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act, which required a handful of mostly Southern states to get approval from the Justice Department before making changes to their voting laws. The entire state of North Carolina wasn’t covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, though several counties were covered by the landmark law and had been subjected to additional federal scrutiny.

Since that case, the Obama administration filed suit in August to stop a new voter ID law in Texas. North Carolina is the second state it has sued since the so-called “preclearance” list of Southern states was overturned by the Supreme Court.

The North Carolina ID law, which was signed by Gov. Pat McCrory in August, goes into effect for the 2016 elections. It requires voters to show a valid, government-issued ID before casting a ballot. It also has a number of other provisions, which will be challenged in the federal lawsuit, according to the person briefed on the Justice Department’s plans.

Among them: the elimination of seven days of early voting; the elimination of same-day registration during early voting; the prohibition against counting provisional ballots that are cast when a voter shows up at the wrong polling place.

But requiring voters to show a government-issued ID is believed to be the heart of the lawsuit. Student IDs are not allowed.

Bob Hall, head of Democracy North Carolina, an election advocacy group, said it was important for the federal government to get involved. Hall said African-Americans are 23 percent of registered voters in North Carolina but made up 29 percent of early voters in 2012, 30 percent of those who cast out-of-precinct ballots, 34 percent of the 318,000 registered voters without state-issued IDs, and 41 percent of those who used same-day registration.

“It's important to recognize that eliminating or restricting those particular features hurt certain people,” Hall said.

State Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg County Republican who has supported the elections law changes, said Sunday night that he had not seen the complaint and could not comment. “Let's see what the complaint is first,” Rucho said.

The Rev. William Barber II, head of the state NAACP, which has filed lawsuits in federal court and the North Carolina courts, challenging the law, said Sunday that he was glad to have assistance from the federal government. “We need every resource, including the federal Department of Justice, to stand against the fundamental attack on democracy,” Barber said. “This law went beyond the pale and all North Carolinians should be repulsed by this effort to turn the clock back on voting rights in this state.”

The federal government will charge that the state was “willfully discriminatory” when it passed the law. Part of that charge is a 2013 analysis by the N.C. Board of Elections, which said that more than 300,000 registered voters did not have a DMV-issued ID.

In addition to asking that the Voter ID law be struck down, the Justice Department is seeking to have North Carolina put back on the “preclearance” list that requires the federal government to approve changes to voter laws.

In the Supreme Court case that struck down the “preclearance” list, Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court said that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act wasn’t unconstitional. Section 5 requires some states and counties to get preapproval for changes to their voting laws.

But the 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder found that the preclearance list itself – which is nearly 40 years old – was outdated and unconstitutional.

Congress could pass a new list of states that need pre-clearance, though that is seen as unlikely in today’s divided government.

Pennsylvania passed a voter ID law before the 2012 presidential election. A state judge delayed the implementation of that law after civil rights groups sued to stop it. Pennsylvania was not subject to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Cleve Wootson contributed.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service