On Monday, residents of North Carolina are taking the state to court, arguing that North Carolina legislators designed a new voter ID law to stifle growing minority turnout that threatened the Republican majority in Raleigh.
The state is claiming that the law was passed to prevent voter fraud, though there is no evidence of widespread fraud at the ballot box. Attorney Denise Lieberman with the Advancement Project, which is representing the North Carolina NAACP in this case, told ThinkProgress that the state lawmakers who debated and passed the ID law knew it would place a disproportionate burden on African American and Latino voters.
“This is illuminated by the fact that there’s no legitimate basis for having this law,” she said. “We have expert witnesses who will testify that the state’s rationale for the law is unsupported, that there is absolutely no evidence of in-person voter impersonation that would justify this law. Furthermore, these laws don’t advance or expand people’s confidence in the voting process, as the state is arguing. They actually reduce it. So the conclusion we must draw is that lawmakers knew what they were doing.”
Lieberman and her colleagues plan to argue that this 2013 law was in part a backlash against the “increased political power” of voters of color in the state. Over the past few decades, both the number of residents of color and the percentage of them who showed up to vote have increased exponentially, thanks in large part to a series of laws making it easier to vote.
“To remedy past suppression of voters of color, the state implemented same-day registration, out of precinct voting, the pre-registration of 17-year-olds, and an extra week of early voting,” Lieberman told ThinkProgress. “These are the very measures the legislature sought to repeal — the ones most important for opening the doors of access.”
That access and increased turnout, the NAACP argues, threatened the Republican majority in the state legislature, since residents of color generally vote for Democrats. The legislators had an “interest in burdening those voters,” their brief states, due to this “racially polarized voting pattern.”
The NAACP is also arguing that the legislature intentionally waited until the Supreme Court struck down key protections in the Voting Rights Act before going forward with the ID law and other provisions. Before that controversial ruling, North Carolina was one of several states with a history of race-based voter suppression that had to ask for federal pre-clearance before changing any of its voting laws.
“The lawmakers sat on this bill, waiting until the Shelby ruling came down, then passed this monster legislation,” Lieberman said.
The NAACP’s legal brief goes on to say that while lawmakers were debating the ID provision, they specifically requested and received data indicating that it would disproportionately burden voters of color, who are twice as likely as white residents to lack an official form of identification. The state proceeded to pass the bill “despite these warning signs.”
Though the legislators rushed to tweak the voter ID law just as civil rights groups were preparing to file a lawsuit, a court ruled that the case could still go forward. Under the version currently on the books, residents who don’t have one of the proper forms of ID can still cast a provisional ballot, but only if they fill out a form explaining why they faced a “reasonable impediment” to obtaining an ID.
Lieberman explained that to qualify for an exemption, voters who don’t have an ID have to stand in a separate line and write down their explanation under penalty of perjury. If their reason is accepted, they will be given a provisional ballot, which won’t be counted until after Election Day, and could be thrown out entirely if the county Board of Elections rejects their explanation. “All of this could intimidate or humiliate voters, especially those who have limited reading skills or English skills, and deter them from trying to vote,” she said.
With the 2016 primaries only a few months away, the NAACP asked the courts to delay the voter ID law’s implementation until after the election, to avoid voter confusion and depressed turnout. The courts refused, and anxieties are high.
“This is the first election with this law in effect, but the state has done a very limited amount of education and training of both voters and poll workers,” Lieberman said. “They are reinforcing the message that without exception you need an ID to vote, and distributing very little information about the ability to exercise the reasonable impediment process.”
The trial could last up to a week. North Carolina residents are still waiting for a ruling on the rest of the challenged voting changes, which went to trial last summer.