The N.C. General Assembly will have more freedom to enact a controversial voter identification law this session, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the federal Voting Rights Act at the end of June.
The bill, which would require voters to show photo ID at the polls, will be taken up by the Senate this week after stalling in committee for more than two months. It passed the House of Representatives in April.
Legislators were moved to action in large part by the Supreme Court justices, who invalidated Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act — a provision that aimed to protect minority voter groups through federal oversight of voting and election laws.
Nine states and certain counties in five other states — including 40 jurisdictions in North Carolina — had been required to submit voting district maps and proposed changes to election laws to the U.S. Department of Justice for approval.
The provision can no longer be enforced unless Congress acts to change parts of the law — a ruling that will allow North Carolina to pass a voter ID measure without federal approval.
Rob Schofield, director of research and policy development at N.C. Policy Watch, said the General Assembly has taken the decision as a signal to move forward with voter ID and other election-related legislation.
“(They’re trying to) make it harder, anyway, to get to the polls than right now,” he said. “We know that, for sure, is going to happen.”
Public officials in North Carolina have a long history of pushing to enact restrictive voting laws, Schofield said.
Guy Charles, a law professor at Duke University, said voter ID laws in many states have a disparate impact on minority voters, voters without government-issued IDs and low-income voters.
But Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, an original sponsor of the voter ID bill, said his legislation is comprehensive and takes into consideration the viewpoints and objections of its opponents.
He said the court’s ruling might enable the Senate to revise the list of acceptable forms of voter ID in the current bill when it comes up for formal debate.
Warren added that the Supreme Court’s decision would not only allow North Carolina to improve accountability in elections, but could also direct Congress to come up with a different formula for addressing discrimination in voting laws.
“It acknowledges that a law that was passed almost 50 years ago is no longer currently relevant,” he said.
“(The Voting Rights Act) doesn’t take into consideration decades of shifts in population and advances made in social and political arenas or requirements.”
Still, legislators and experts are concerned about future implications of the court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act outside of voter ID regulations.
Michael Crowell, a professor in UNC’s School of Government, said the court decision will affect district-based elections for school boards, county commissions and city councils in the counties previously covered by the Voting Rights Act.
Rep. Garland Pierce (D-Scotland), chairman of the General Assembly’s legislative black caucus, said he feels redistricting without the need to obtain approval will be problematic for the state when trying to maintain fair elections.
Schofield said it will be more difficult to challenge discriminatory maps, both at the state and local levels.
“We ought not to be doing away with the tools that we have to combat that kind of discrimination,” he said.
Gov. Pat McCrory is expected to sign the voter ID bill if it passes the Senate.
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