A Wake County judge plans to take two to three weeks to decide whether a lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s voter ID law should be dismissed or proceed to trial this summer.
Mike Morgan, a Wake County Superior Court judge, briefed attorneys Friday after listening to several hours of arguments for and against the dismissal request.
The case is rooted in an overhaul of North Carolina election law that was adopted by the Republican-led General Assembly in 2013.
Under the sweeping changes, which are also being challenged in federal court, voters going to the polls in 2016 will have to show one of seven forms of photo identification to cast a ballot.
The League of Women Voters of North Carolina, the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute and five female voters argue that lawmakers overstepped the bounds of the state Constitution when they added the ID requirement.
Attorneys for the state lawmakers countered that registered voters without one of the seven acceptable IDs are not shut out completely from voting.
Alec Peters, a special deputy attorney general in the N.C. Attorney General’s office, said the law still allows voters to cast a mail-in absentee ballot without an ID.
“As long as someone has the ability to vote by ballot, their right to vote has not been affected, infringed on,” Peters said. “They may not be able to go to the polls to vote, but they will not be denied the right to vote.”
Press Millen, an attorney with Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice in Raleigh, along with lawyers from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, countered 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 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 said, 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.
“We have a Constitution that says every qualified voter can vote,” Millen argued. “Then we have this new statute that says, ‘Oh, you have to do this other thing.’ ”
Millen said 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.
Peters 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 NAACP and others who have sued the state at the federal level say the voter ID requirements are essentially unconstitutional poll taxes. They argue that many voters, often poor and minorities, don’t have the necessary documents or money to get photo IDs.
The challengers in Wake County court offered details about a voter they represented who did not have a birth certificate and was not born in a hospital. She has spent at least $100 and tried for almost a year to get one of the seven acceptable IDs, but she has been unsuccessful.
Farr argued that the state Division of Motor Vehicles would go to great lengths to try to verify someone’s identity for a state-issued card.
“They say they don’t have the documents, but they don’t say they can’t get them,” Farr said of the challengers.
George Eppsteiner, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, argued that forcing voters to present IDs would keep otherwise qualified voters from casting ballots at polling places.
“Maybe now that they have to get one to vote, they’ll figure out how to get one,” Farr said.
The state and federal cases are scheduled for trial in July.
Morgan ruled against changing the trial schedule for the case in his courtroom, but he said he would reconsider if firmer dates for the federal trial presented timing issues.