The state Supreme Court heard arguments Monday in an appeal of a lower court decision from last year that struck down a state law requiring a photo ID to vote.
The Republican-led legislature passed the law in a 2018 lame duck session before they lost their supermajority, and overturned Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto.
In a 2-1 decision, a panel of Superior Court judges said last year that law put a greater burden on African American voters and was motivated, at least in part, by an unconstitutional intent to target them.
This isn’t the first time that North Carolina Republicans have passed a law requiring voters show photo ID at the polls.
A sweeping 2013 elections law included a voter photo ID requirement that was in place for the 2016 primary before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated it. In its July 2016 opinion, the federal appeals court concluded the 2013 law was discriminatory and that legislators crafted it to disallow the types of alternative IDs most used by African Americans.
The 2013 law played a role in last year’s trial on the 2018 law, as expert witnesses and the judges in their opinions compared the old law to the new.
“What weight should be given to legislative history in terms of looking at discriminatory intent?” Supreme Court Justice Mike Morgan asked Pete Patterson, the lawyer representing Republican legislators.
Patterson said the Superior Court majority’s decision “presumed bad faith at every turn.”
The new voter ID law was more protective of voters than the old law, Patterson said, and included a “sweeping reasonable impediment provision.” That process would have allowed people without IDs to cast provisional ballots if they signed affidavits saying why they didn’t have one.
However, an expert told the Superior Court judges that African American voters were less likely to have the types of photo ID needed to vote, more likely to have to use the “reasonable impediment” process. The trial court opinion said that African Americans would be more likely to have to obtain an ID needed to vote and would have a harder time doing so because of the history of racial discrimination.
Jeff Loperfido, senior counsel for voting rights at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, argued that the legislative history and historical background are important.
“The harm here under an equal protection challenge is that voters are being treated differently and that the fundamental right to vote for certain individuals is being burdened in a way that is falling disproportionately on them,” Loperfido said.
Voter impersonation that Republicans contend the ID law would combat is rare. The trial court said it is “almost nonexistent” in North Carolina.
“There is certainly insufficient evidence to conclude that the desire to combat voter fraud was an actual motivation of the legislature in passing” the bill, the majority opinion said.