A three-judge panel ruled 2-1 Friday that the state voter ID law enacted by the General Assembly in 2018 is unconstitutional. The law required voters to present a photo ID when casting their ballots, including provisional ones.
Lawmakers approved Senate Bill 824 by overriding Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the legislation during a lame duck session in December 2018.
Represented by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice as well as pro bono counsel from the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, five North Carolina voters sued legislative defendants, including House Speaker Tim Moore in Wake County Superior Court.
Signed by Democratic Judges Michael O’Foghludha and Vince Rozier, Jr., the majority opinion held that the law was passed with discriminatory purpose or intent. Plaintiffs’ expert Kevin Quinn, a University of Michigan professor, performed an analysis in which he matched voter files to databases that track the rates at which various groups possess the required ID and unearthed disparities between voters of different races.
According to the ruling, “When restricting [Quinn’s] analysis to active voters—those who voted in the 2016 and 2018 elections—African American voters were over twice as likely to lack qualifying ID than white voters.”
Therefore, the majority opinion said, the burden of obtaining qualifying ID, including free ID, would fall more heavily on Black voters, who more often lack a form of qualifying ID required under SB 824 and encounter more barriers to obtaining such IDs compared to white voters.
In his dissenting opinion, Republican Judge Nathaniel Poovey wrote that plaintiffs failed to prove that legislative defendants acted with discriminatory intent.
“Senate Bill 824 was a bipartisan bill that was supported along the way by multiple African American legislators and enacted after the people of our State approved a constitutional amendment calling for voter-photo-ID requirements,” Poovey wrote. He said that SB 824 should not be declared unconstitutional.
Three-judge panels, composed of three superior court judges from different judicial districts, are a common form of arbitration for constitutional challenges to state laws. The Holmes v. Moore decision came after a three-week trial in April.
In 2019, the Wake County Superior Court denied plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction, which was granted later by a Court of Appeals panel in 2020.
In response to today’s ruling, Southern Coalition for Social Justice co-executive director and chief counsel for voting rights Allison Riggs issued a statement lauding the judges’ action:
“We applaud the three-judge panel’s decision and hope it sends a strong message that racial discrimination will not be tolerated. Should legislative defendants appeal today’s ruling, we’ll be prepared to remind them of what this court and the state’s constitution mandate: every vote matters.”
A separate federal lawsuit on the voter ID law is ongoing. As Policy Watch previously reported, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore sought to intervene in that suit, but were rebuffed in that effort by the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Berger and Moore are seeking review of that issue by the U.S. Supreme Court. In response to today’s ruling, Moore’s attorney promised an appeal, saying in a statement “We look forward to appealing this partisan ruling on behalf of the people of North Carolina.”
This is not the first time North Carolina pushed for a stricter photo ID requirement. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Shelby County v. Holder ruling, the Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly voted to pass HB 589, which only allowed one of eight forms of voter ID for in-person voters. That bill also included other restrictive measures such as ending pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds and forbidding voters from casting ballots outside of their precincts.
The Fourth Circuit of Appeals said in the decision striking down the law, that the General Assembly was “eager to rush through the legislative process the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has ever seen since the era of Jim Crow.”
Quinn’s analysis shows that though SB 324 added a few eligible IDs to the eight types of acceptable IDs under HB 589, it added only a “minuscule number” of voters.
Policy Watch will publish additional updates on this case as they become available.