Rural Votes and South Forward have formed an alliance to help North Carolina voters understand and comply with new voter ID laws signed into law by Governor Pat McCrory on August 12, 2013. A little recent history about voter ID laws and the previous protections from Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act may be helpful to explain why the new law in North Carolina requires action to help voters understand and comply.
Neighboring South Carolina passed its law in May 2011 that required voters to show a photo ID before they could vote. Republicans praised the law as protecting the integrity of elections. Democrats criticized the law as disenfranchising the hundreds of thousands of South Carolinians – mostly minorities – who did not have a photo ID. In December 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice blocked the bill from taking effect. You can read the entire letter from the DOJ rejecting the South Carolina law here. South Carolina sued and a federal three-judge panel then upheld the law as a result of the state deciding to agree to allow voters to opt out of the photo ID requirement if they had a “reasonable impediment” and signed an affidavit attesting to that.
That kind of check and balance fueled by Section 5 resulted in the South Carolina law being rendered largely toothless by the federal court, in essence, forcing South Carolina to adjust their requirements. The safety net of Section 5 was felled on June 25, 2013 by Shelby County V. Holder in a 5-4 vote of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).
While the Court did not invalidate the principle that preclearance can be required, it held that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which sets out the formula that is used to determine which state and local governments must comply with Section 5’s preapproval requirement, is unconstitutional and can no longer be used. Which means that while Section 5 survives, it will have no actual effect unless, and until Congress can enact a new statute to determine what the coverage should be.
That’s right — Congress.
Now, let’s talk about NC. On July 25, 2013 – one month to the day of the decision by SCOTUS to make Section 5 gutless, the North Carolina legislature passed a new voter ID law. The law “limits the kind of identification that voters can use at the polls to a North Carolina driver’s license, a state-issued ID card, a military ID, or a U.S. passport.” According to the law, out of state licenses will only work for voters who have moved into the state within 60 days of the election. College IDs are not valid forms of identification. The approved bill also cut early voting. Governor Pat McCrory (R) signed the bill into law on August 12, 2013 Parts of the law are in effect now, although primary photo ID requirements are not taking effect until January, 2016.
Back to the fight. Just yesterday a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals met in Charlotte to hear arguments on an injunction to prevent elements in the law already implemented in the May primary from being used in the fall election. It’s an appeal of a decision made little more than a month ago by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas D. Schroeder to deny a preliminary injunction. According to Judge Schroeder, plaintiffs had not proven the premise that voters were being harmed by the law’s implementation.
Photo voter IDs were declared constitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States in 2008. In a 6-to-3 ruling, the court rejected arguments that Indiana’s law imposes unjustified burdens on people who are old, poor or members of minority groups and less likely to have driver’s licenses or other acceptable forms of identification.
Notwithstanding the treat of a blistering dissent by the Honorable Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, photo voter ID laws are deemed constitutional. Until very recently, 16 states had enforceable photo ID laws, 8 were considered strict. On Friday, September 12, 2014, a federal appeals court in Chicago ruled that Wisconsin can implement its photo voter ID law, while the appeals process continues. The law, enacted in 2011, has been blocked by court challenges up until this point.
Wisconsin is now the ninth state to have a strict photo ID law in place, a stunning and disconcerting comeback.
A number of states, including NC and NH will be in the strict column in the not so distant future. There are court challenges in 5 states with photo voter ID laws on the books. It’s worth watching state legislatures that have had ID laws blocked by litigation. We can expect new laws, written more thoughtfully, will rear their ugly heads where legislators and bound, and determined to pass new strict voter ID laws.
Photo voter ID laws are not going away. They may be tweaked by courts along the way, one or two maybe tossed out entirely because a judge determined a particularly egregious requirement was over the top. In the meantime, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is unenforceable and we’re waiting on Congress to reaffirm that section that protects voters in certain jurisdictions. With that in mind, RuralVotes and South Forward are already working hard to help make sure every vote is counted by reaching out to average voters to help them understand and comply with the new laws before they take full effect.
It’s the right thing to do. You can help.