State Politics

Federal judge who backed limits on early ballots upholds voter ID requirement

Information placards on the welcoming voters' table in the lobby of the Paul Green Theatre on the UNC-CH campus Tuesday morning, May 6, 2014 explain North Carolina’s new voter ID requirements.
Information placards on the welcoming voters' table in the lobby of the Paul Green Theatre on the UNC-CH campus Tuesday morning, May 6, 2014 explain North Carolina’s new voter ID requirements.

A federal judge has upheld North Carolina’s voter ID law in a ruling posted Monday evening.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder issued a 485-page ruling dismissing all claims in the challenge to the state’s sweeping 2013 election law overhaul.

Schroeder, a George W. Bush appointee, also upheld portions of the 2013 law that reduced the number of days people could vote early, eliminated same-day registration and voting and prohibited people from casting a ballot outside their precinct.

The decision comes nearly three months after a trial on the ID portion of the law.

Schroeder noted that North Carolina had “become progressive nationally” by permitting absentee voting, early voting for 17 days before the Election Day, a lengthy registration period, out-of-precinct voting on Election Day and a pre-registration program for 16-year-olds.

“In 2013, North Carolina retrenched,” Schroeder said in his opinion.

Ultimately, though, Schroeder said the state had provided “legitimate state interests” in making the changes and the challengers failed to demonstrate that the law was unconstitutional.

“This ruling further affirms that requiring a photo ID in order to vote is not only common sense, it’s constitutional,” Gov. Pat McCrory said in a statement. “Common practices like boarding an airplane and purchasing Sudafed require photo ID, and thankfully a federal court has ensured our citizens will have the same protection for their basic right to vote.”

In reaching the decision released on Monday, Schroeder conducted a two-part trial that spanned more than 21 days in July and this past January. He considered the testimony of 21 expert witnesses and 112 other witnesses, and more than 25,000 pages that are part of the record.

The ruling received swift condemnation from civil rights organizations that challenged the 3-year-old changes to North Carolina’s voting process.

“The sweeping barriers imposed by this law undermine voter participation and have an overwhelmingly discriminatory impact on African-Americans,” Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. “This ruling does not change that reality. We are already examining an appeal.”

An appeal is likely, and many expect the U.S. Supreme Court to be the final arbiter of the constitutionality of a law that has been monitored by many.

“We’re confident that the voters in this state will eventually be vindicated,” said Allison Riggs, a senior staff attorney at Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represented challengers to the law.

The legal battle is one of several being watched across the nation as courts address questions of the fairness and lasting impacts that ID laws have on voting rights.

In North Carolina, voters were required this year to use one of six specified IDs when they cast ballots – unless they could show they faced a “reasonable impediment” for getting one.

The rule is part of sweeping changes to North Carolina’s elections law that were shepherded through the Republican-led General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, in 2013, the first year the party had control of both chambers and the governor’s office.

In 2015, on the eve of the federal trial, N.C. legislators added a “reasonable impediment” option that gave voters who did not have or could not get an ID the option of casting a provisional ballot.

In the March primaries, many college students who did not have one of the specified IDs ran into problems and had to cast provisional ballots — some of which counted, others that didn’t.

Those data were not before Schroeder as he issued his opinion.

Bob Hall, head of Democracy NC, a voting rights organization, said Monday night that he was not surprised by Schroeder’s ruling.

“He ruled as long expected; he just took 485 pages to do so,” Hall said. “In one telling section, he concludes, ‘There is significant, shameful past discrimination. In North Carolina’s recent history, however, certainly for the last quarter century, there is little official discrimination to consider.’ Hopefully, other judges will take off the rose-colored glasses and look at the facts and law with more care.”

Schroeder did keep in place same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting for the June 7 primaries, in which U.S. congressional and N.C. Supreme Court candidates will be on the ballot.

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said Monday that it would take him time to read the full 485-page opinion. But he said that on quick glance, it looked to be “very comprehensive.”

Tobias questioned whether an appeal could be resolved in time for the November elections. “I assume the higher courts will be sensitive to timing issues, but it is unclear how much they can do,” Tobias added.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948