N.C. Senate Bill 824 — proposed legislation requiring North Carolinians to present a photo ID when voting — was declared unconstitutional on Sept. 17.
The bill reflected the results of a 2018 state referendum to amend the N.C. Constitution to include restrictions on voter ID. But a three-judge panel in Wake County decided the legislation was unconstitutional due to its racially discriminatory intent.
History of voter ID laws in N.C.
Voter ID has been a heavily contested issue in North Carolina for years, and SB 824 is only the latest legislation introduced to target this topic, Chris Cooper, a political science and public affairs professor at Western Carolina University, said.
The House passed HB 589 in 2013, which was ultimately shot down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit for intentionally discriminating against Black voters. Then, in 2018, the General Assembly passed HB 1092 — the bill proposing the referendum, in which North Carolinians voted for a constitutional amendment targeting voter ID.
A case titled Holmes v. Moore – "Moore" being N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore — however, challenged the Senate bill. The bill became law after Republicans overrode Gov. Cooper's veto, and 55 percent of North Carolina residents later voted in favor of the amendment.
But this challenge resulted in the law being declared unconstitutional two weeks ago.
Bob Phillips, the executive director at Common Cause North Carolina, said these attempted restrictions on voter ID are reminiscent of the Jim Crow era, when requirements to vote were enacted to discourage the Black electorate from going to the polls.
“I mean, that's still in the collective memory of some folks,” Phillips said. “(Voting) is not a privilege, it is a right. And voting should be easy and accessible if someone is a citizen of this country.”
Disproportionately targeting minorities
Black Americans are less likely to have state identification, Cooper said, so they would be the segment of the population most impacted by this bill.
Katelin Kaiser, a voting rights legal fellow at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said racial minorities have a long history of being suppressed in North Carolina, and voter ID is inherently tied to that idea.
Some politicians say they advocate on behalf of voter ID laws because they want to improve the public’s confidence in the electoral system due to claims of voter fraud, but Kaiser said this argument is “a ruse.” She said there is far more evidence nationally to contradict claims of fraud rather than support them.
“It really comes down to suppressing Black political power and ensuring that there are some voters who matter and some voters who don't,” Kaiser said.
Mitch Kokai, a senior political analyst at the John Locke Foundation, said the dissenting judge in the decision, along with many conservatives, argue that no evidence exists to prove that SB 824 is racially discriminatory.
The majority opinion, Kokai said, was reliant on the national history of racial discrimination in the state’s electoral laws.
Given that the majority of the state voted to enable this legislation on the referendum, Kokai said he supports the implementation of the law.
He said that while he would not speculate on whether the judges ruled based on their left- and right-leaning tendencies, he thought the judicial philosophies associated with political parties helped guide the justices’ decisions.
Local opposition to the law
Michael Parker, the mayor pro tempore of Chapel Hill, said there is very little local support for the voter ID bill around town.
He said the court’s decision made clear that voter ID laws primarily impact people of color, which would affect minorities in the Chapel Hill community, just like everywhere else in the state, if the bill was implemented.
“I think the goal of our state government, and then all of us in government at every level, should be doing everything we can to get as many people to vote as we can,” Parker said.
This bill, however, would have the opposite effect, he said. Getting citizens to vote in municipal elections is already a problem, he said, and voter ID legislation would only reduce participation in the electoral process.
A national debate
Cooper said this debate surrounding voter ID is happening all around the country — 11 states have strict laws requiring identification to be shown, while 24 other states have restrictions that request identifications among voters.
North Carolina, along with many traditionally left-leaning states, currently require no documents to vote. Cooper, however, said legislators are likely to appeal this recent decision, which could send the law to a higher court.
No voter ID requirement will exist for the 2021 election cycle, though, which primarily includes local elections this November.
Phillips said it is possible that the voter ID debate will not be resolved by the primary elections in March 2022. He also said that, if there were to be an ID requirement, it should not be as strict as previously proposed options.
“If we are going to someday have some kind of ID requirement, it must be as expansive in our mind — expansive meaning as many photo ID opportunities or options as possible,” Phillips said.