Wake judge allows case on voter ID law to proceed to trial

A Wake County judge has refused to dismiss a challenge to North Carolina’s voter ID law, saying in a ruling issued Friday that most of the claims in the lawsuit are strong enough to take to trial.

Judge Mike Morgan dismissed two of six claims made by the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, the A. Philip Randolph Institute and five female voters who contend that requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls violates the North Carolina State Constitution.

Attorneys for the legislators behind the 2013 elections-law overhaul argued three weeks ago to Morgan that the case should be dismissed outright and that no one would be prohibited from voting if they did not have one of the acceptable forms of ID.

The attorneys for the lawmakers contended that because an ID will not be necessary to cast a mail-in absentee ballot, that the challengers’ arguments have no merits.

But Morgan ruled that he could not make a final decision until he heard evidence in the case.

“On behalf of our clients, we look forward to trying this case in July and demonstrating the disenfranchising effect of the photo ID requirement,” said George Eppsteiner, a Southern Coalition for Social Justice staff attorney for some of the challengers.

Melvin Montford, executive director of the A. Phillip Randolph Institute of North Carolina, added, “We’re going to show how this law has a negative impact on voters of color and voters that do not have the resources to obtain an ID.”

The ruling comes three weeks after a daylong hearing in Wake County Superior Court.

Press Millen, an attorney with Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice in Raleigh, along with lawyers from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, contended that the first article of the state constitution governs voter qualifications. That article was adopted in 1868, when North Carolina was under military rule in the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.

The qualifications set out there are minimal, Millen has said. They are that a person be at least 18, a North Carolina resident and not a felon, unless rights of citizenship have been restored.

The North Carolina Constitution, Millen argued, explicitly allows the General Assembly to “enact general laws governing the registration of voters,” and over the past 147 years, pages and pages of laws related to that topic have been added to the General Statutes.

In contrast, he said, lawmakers cannot change voter qualifications without North Carolina voters, themselves, weighing in on the matter.

At issue in the Wake County courtroom Friday was whether requiring IDs at the poll should be considered a “qualification” for voting or an extension of the registration process, which lawmakers have the authority to tweak.

Millen argued that if North Carolina is going to have a requirement that distinguishes which IDs are acceptable, then such a change to election law must be approved by voters as an amendment to the state constitution.

Alec Peters, a special deputy attorney general in the N.C. Attorney General’s office, and Thomas A. Farr, an attorney with Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart in Raleigh, argued that an ID requirement is no different from what voters do now – attest to poll workers that they are who they say they are by stating their name and address, then signing a form before being handed a ballot.

Republican lawmakers pushed for the requirement, contending that it would prevent voter fraud and build confidence in election results. But few cases of voter fraud have been prosecuted.

The case in Wake County Superior Court is not the only legal challenge to the elections law overhaul in 2013.

The NAACP and others who have filed lawsuits in federal court contend that the 2013 overhaul discriminates against African-Americans, Latinos and voters younger than 25. They’re seeking to block provisions that end same-day registration, curb the number of days on which people can vote early, do away with a popular teen preregistration program and prohibit people from casting ballots out of their assigned precinct.

They also listed the voter ID requirement as a provision that would hit African-Americans, Latinos and college-age voters the hardest. They have argued in federal and state court that many voters, often poor and minorities, don’t have the necessary documents or money to get photo IDs.

Advocates of the changes have argued that voting rules had the same effect on all voters.

In his ruling Friday, Morgan threw out two claims made by the challengers. He dismissed arguments that the voter ID requirement represented an unconstitutional property ownership requirement and that it trespassed against a guarantee of free elections.

North Carolina’s voter ID requirement is not set to take full effect until 2016. The trials in state and federal court are expected to be resolved before then.

Blythe: 919-836-4948;

Twitter: @AnneBlythe1