Though a federal judge has upheld North Carolina’s voter ID law as part of a ruling on an expansive 2013 elections law overhaul, the question of whether the ID provision violated the N.C. Constitution still pends in state court.
On Friday, Wake County Superior Court Judge Mike Morgan held a hearing in which lawyers for the state tried to delay progress of the state case while attorneys for organizations challenging the ID provision tried to push forward toward a possible trial date in August.
Phil Strach, a Raleigh attorney in private practice representing state lawmakers, argued that holding a trial so close to the November elections could bring chaos if the challengers were successful.
“The ID requirement at this point is the status quo,” Strach contended. “We’re already too close to November election for the court to unwind the ID requirement this year.
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“It’s not just a matter of shutting the valve on or off,” Strach argued, adding that Board of Elections’ training guides for poll workers incorporate the ID requirement, though an appeal has been filed in the federal case that upheld the requirement as constitutional.
Morgan asked how telling voters that an ID was not required to cast a ballot, if the challengers were successful in state court, could reap such chaos on the system.
“I understand that if there is something being added,” Morgan told Strach. “To take away something that is part of the status quo, it seems as if there would be less for election officials to enforce, but not more.”
The case, which was amended last month to include complaints from March primary voters whose votes were not counted because of the new ID requirements, was filed initially in 2013.
The question upon filing was whether the addition of the ID requirement, which went into effect at the March primary, was in conflict with the first article of the state constitution.
The qualifications set out there are minimal, said Press Millen, a Raleigh attorney representing the challengers with lawyers from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. To vote, the article stated, a person must be at least 18, a North Carolina resident and not a felon, unless rights of citizenship have been restored.
Attorneys for the challengers have argued that North Carolina’s constitution explicitly gives the General Assembly the power 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. But they’ve argued that North Carolina voters, not the legislators, hold the ultimate decision on whether photo IDs must be presented at the polls.
Attorneys for the state lawmakers have argued otherwise. They contend the 2013 election law overhaul is an extension of the voter registration process, that requiring N.C. voters to show one of six approved IDs or cast a provisional ballot if they are unable to get one is not a “qualification” needed to vote.
The state case was put on hold last year after the General Assembly amended the ID portion of the law on the eve of the federal trial to allow for provisional ballots to be cast. Before that, North Carolina was held up as a state with one of the strictest ID laws.
At the hearing Friday, lawyers for the state argued that Morgan should either wait for the state Court of Appeals to rule on pending appeals in the state case or transfer further proceedings to a three-judge panel to consider broad constitutional questions.
Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, disagreed with the state’s attorneys and suggested that it was within Morgan’s purview to hear claims from voters whose ballots were not counted in the primary elections.
“What is significant about our plaintiffs,” Earls said, “is they did everything they needed to do to vote.”
If successful in their challenge, Earls said, they might ask the judge to come up with a remedy that says every valid vote should count at the post-election day caucusing, not necessarily something that would require reprinting training manuals and more.
“Really what they want, is they want the law to be gutted,” Strach said. “They want the ID law to be voluntary.”