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Trial underway challenging constitutionality of North Carolina Voter ID state law

DTH Photo Illustration. A trial has begun which challenges NC's 2018 law requiring photo ID to vote.

A trial continues this week as voter rights attorneys try to strike down a North Carolina law that requires voters to present identification when casting ballots.

The trial, which began April 12, raises questions about whether N.C. Senate Bill 824 – passed in 2018 when the General Assembly overturned Gov. Roy Cooper's veto – intentionally discriminates against Black voters.

The photo ID law did not apply in the March primaries or November general election due to state and federal judges blocking the law's implementation. 

Plaintiffs argue that the law causes an undue burden to the right to vote and disproportionately affects Black voters who may have difficulty obtaining the accepted identification. 

“There’s a history of voter suppression in North Carolina that has been around for a very long time,” Mitchell Brown, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice involved with the case, said. “This is history that we can’t forget.”

The law came after a majority of North Carolina voters endorsed a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2018, requiring photo ID.

Jabari Holmes, one of the lead plaintiffs of the case, is a 42-year-old, bi-racial man with severe cerebral palsy that has confined him to a wheelchair. 

Holmes was unsuccessful in obtaining a copy of his Social Security card before the 2016 election. He wouldn't have been able to get an ID from the Wake County Board of Elections because there’s no handicapped parking near its office, which is 30 minutes from his home.

Holmes had to cast a reasonable impediment professional ballot in March 2016 since he lacked an acceptable photo ID.

“It’s something Jabari really looks forward to, and we had tried everything we could,” Elizabeth Holmes, Jabari Holmes' mother, said at the trial on April 12. 

Other plaintiffs include Fred Culp, who — due to a neck injury — does not own a valid driver's license. He tried to get a  North Carolina ID, but was unsuccessful in obtaining a copy of his birth certificate from South Carolina due to an administrative misspelling. 

Daniel Smith, another plaintiff in the case, faced problems with his temporary government-issued license that a poll worker refused to accept on Election Day. 

Plaintiff Shakoya Carrie Brown is a student at Johnson C. Smith University, where the university's student IDs don't include an expiration date and don’t meet the requirements of SB 824. 

Mitchell Brown said the types of IDs that are accepted are held by Black voters in disproportionately lower numbers.

All plaintiffs in the case are people of color. 

UNC history professor Jim Leloudis was called to testify on April 13. He said based on his analysis, Black North Carolinians will have the hardest time getting photo ID compared to other demographics. 

“Black North Carolinians are more likely to employed in low wage jobs, which they cannot afford or often not allowed time away from work to acquire an ID, particularly when the offices to acquire those IDs are open during normal daytime business hours,” he said.

SB 824 is similar to 2013 N.C. House Bill 589, which was struck down by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in 2016. The court said in its decision that “the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision." 

Defendants argue that the current law is less strict than HB 589, as it includes a more expansive list of acceptable voter identification, among other minor changes. 

“It’s more generous and forgiving,” David Thompson, an attorney for the defense, said in trial.

There were 13 amendments on SB 824 between the N.C. Senate and House, most accepted with bipartisan support. 

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At the time, Republicans had a supermajority in the N.C. General Assembly. Though Gov. Cooper vetoed the bill, Republicans were able to override the veto and squeeze in the law before they lost seats in the next legislative cycle. 

Plaintiffs still argue that the new law is discriminatory, just as HB 589 was ruled to be.

“Fast forward to 2018 with SB 824 and you see that the legislature did not ask for any more data,” Mitchell Brown said. “That kind of raises suspicions about if this is the same bill, and we would argue that it is the same bill.”

There is no clear timeline for how long the trial will last. Technical difficulties — including a Webex blackout that caused the court to lose a day on April 19 — have delayed procedures. 


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