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Outgoing Democratic majority on NC Supreme Court blocks voter ID law

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DTH Photo Illustration. The NC Supreme Court ruled that voter ID cannot be a requirement to cast a ballot.

In a 4-3 ruling on Dec. 16, the North Carolina Supreme Court struck down a voter photo ID requirement, ending a four-year legal battle between state Republican lawmakers and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

Voting along partisan lines, the majority said the bill was “enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose” and therefore violated the state constitution.

The Republican-controlled N.C. General Assembly passed Senate Bill 824, which required voter ID, in a lame-duck session in 2018, while the party could still use its supermajority to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto.

SB824 aimed to actualize the 2018 constitutional amendment requiring photo identification to vote. UNC history professor James Leloudis, who testified for the SCSJ when the case was in Superior Court, said the amendment was passed in an unconventional manner.

“Ordinarily, you would expect the legislature to have appointed a study commission that would have gathered a whole range of expert opinion and testimony,” he said.

That never happened for the voter ID amendment. Voters approved it by referendum without ever seeing the legislation that was passed to enforce it. A last-minute assembly was called to pass the law only after the amendment had been approved, Leloudis said.

The official justification for the bill was to protect the integrity of state elections from voter fraud.

“It’s truly a solution searching for a problem,” Jaclyn Maffetore, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said. 

Maffetore briefly worked with the SCSJ on Holmes v. Moore, the voter ID case, in its early days.

The day after the bill was filed, the SCSJ challenged the voter ID law in the Wake County Superior Court on the grounds that it was racially motivated. The court suspended the law for the duration of the trial, meaning it never affected an actual election.

“The IDs that it included — and the IDs it opted not to include — had an overwhelming, disparate impact along racial lines,” Maffetore said.

Meanwhile, a companion case challenging the amendment itself was filed by the North Carolina NAACP on the same day as Holmes v. Moore.

Jeff Loperfido, the interim chief counsel of voting rights at the SCSJ and one of the lawyers who argued the case, said that, given the history of voting rights in the state and the fact that Black voters predominantly vote for the Democratic Party, there was an incentive for Republicans to stop them from voting.

“There was a direct payoff for Republicans to try and disenfranchise Black voters,” he said.

A similar law passed in 2013, House Bill 589, did just that to Jabari Holmes, the lead plaintiff in Holmes v. Moore. Holmes is a 47-year-old Black man with cerebral palsy. His condition makes it difficult to travel, and he was unable to provide the ID required under HB589 in the 2016 election.

Loperfido said the fight for voting rights is more than a partisan conflict — it is a matter of protecting a fundamental human right for people like Holmes.

According to Leloudis, that struggle has a long history in North Carolina. For example, not every state constitution guarantees the right to free elections, but North Carolina’s does, he said.

“That’s a constitution that was written by newly emancipated slaves and their allies in 1868, when these questions of race and democracy were front and center,” he said.

Loperfido said that the court found active discriminatory intent in the legislation set a powerful precedent.

If the new 5-2 Republican majority on the state Supreme Court follows the lead of the former minority opinions, it will likely defer more to the legislature, he said, which could make it more difficult for cases addressing voting rights and civil rights to find traction.

@gacmorrison

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@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com