Why the Supreme Court Rejected North Carolina’s Voter ID Appeal

The legal ping pong ball has appeared to stop bouncing for proponents of North Carolina’s recent election reforms.

On Monday, May 15, the United States Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the State of North Carolina to overturn a lower court that shot down the state’s 2013 law. The Court rejected hearing the appeal a first time last August, because it was deadlocked in a 4-4 tie, with a vacancy. So, the result is that the majority of the 2013 law is null and void

WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS?

After the landmark Shelby v Holder ruling by the US Supreme Court in 2013, North Carolina passed a sweeping law [PDF] that made dramatic changes to most parts of the voting process statewide. Among the changes were: eliminating same-day voter registration, tossing votes that were cast in the wrong precinct, shortening early-voting from 17 to 10 days, imposing uniform voting hours statewide, ending pre-registration of 16 and 17-year-olds who turned 18 by voting day, and requiring qualified photo identification when casting a ballot.

Two particular elements of the law that raised ire and brought security was the change in early voting hours and the purpose of the ID requirement. Some precincts in certain counties had for years extended early voting hours on weekdays, and even on Sundays. By the State’s own admission, they felt these inconsistencies justified the changes, because “[c]ounties with Sunday voting in 2014 were disproportionately black” and “disproportionately Democratic.” And, during debate in the House Rules Committee, a Republican precinct chairman testified that the Voter ID requirement would “disenfranchise some of [Democrats’] special voting blocks [sic],” and that “that within itself is the reason for the photo voter ID, period, end of discussion.”

However, Sen. Bob Rucho (R-Mecklenburg) told the Associated Press. “I would hope we can pass this bill and re-establish a level of integrity and confidence in the electoral system.”

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT

The debate was red hot during 2013. State Republicans said the changes were needed to combat fraud. Democrats focused on the scope of the law and who it affected the most, specifically the changes to voting precincts.

As soon as the bill became law, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in District Court, on the grounds that most of it disproportionately affected African-Americans and Democrats. After a series of rulings, it ended up in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The subsequent ruling by the Fourth Circuit [PDF], in a unanimous decision, agreed with much of the ACLU’s challenge. Judge Diana Motz, one of the three on the panel, stated that the extra provisions appeared to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision, they constitute inapt remedies for the problems assertedly justifying them and, in fact, impose cures for problems that did not exist. Thus the asserted justifications cannot and do not conceal the State’s true motivation.” She continued, “we cannot ignore the recent evidence that, because of race, the legislature enacted one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history.” They pointed to the state’s own words in court and public hearings as the “smoking gun.”

So, the Court tossed out the state’s ID requirement at polls, and restored same day voter registration, even on Election Day. It also put back in place the ability to pre-register before reaching 18 years of age, and early voting for 17 days. The State acquiesced on some points, and didn’t challenge parts of the ruling, including the early registration and early voting rules.

Voter ID requirements aren’t taboo in the United States, as 33 states currently have laws requiring one to vote. Recent laws passed by Wisconsin, Texas and others have been mostly allowed to stand, with a few small changes. So, the ID requirement did not appear to be the main contention, but rather the intent behind the other provisions attached to the new requirement. Arguably, the law may have stood without those earlier comments, and extra provisions.

Still, the debate on the merits is uncomfortable on both sides. Strangely, Democrat groups have admitted large portions of their voters lack proper identification, with 34% of North Carolina’s registered black voters, and 55% of Democrats in general lacking a state-issued ID. Only 21% of Republicans face the same problem. These numbers do appear a bit inflated, but nonetheless, point to a disparity. So clearly, such a change appears on it’s face to disproportionately affect African-Americans, common sense arguments aside. (How does one function well in society without an ID?) The numbers are slightly better nationwide. It didn’t help that the State specified race and partisan preference in it’s argument, though. Getting the dog to loosen the bone after that is difficult.

Percentage without a general photo ID. NC’s law requires a state-issued ID or US passport

Regardless of these numbers, many Republicans point out that these requirements are no differentthan normal identification requirements for registration or other government functions. They believe the standards should be consistent in all facets of public life. And, statistics indicate that these laws do not lower the percentage of participation by minorities, and if anything affect all races and income levels equally. So, even if courts feel the intent is to lessen minority involvement, it doesn’t seem to have that effect in the states with Voter ID laws.

NOW WHAT?

Now, with the SCOTUS rejecting the appeal, it allows the lower court ruling to stand, effectively ending all possible action in the future. However, Chief Justice John Roberts was quick to point out that although the Court declined to hear the case, it should imply no opinion about the merits of the case itself. There was also some technical conflict with a “flurry” of info about who was authorized to appeal before the Court. It’s possible a new law could be passed, dealing with each change separately

Unfortunately, this battle in North Carolina, nuanced as it is, has had a negative impact on the image of Voter ID proponents nationwide. And most conservative media fail to point out the controversial statements by those working to pass the bill and defend it. Perhaps, we dug our own grave on this one.

The lesson here could be that comprehensive changes to any hot issue can doom a bill to failure by providing too many points of legal challenge. No one important is asking me, but if they did, I’d say next time to keep the stupid comments out of committee, make sure racism is absent from any discussion, and just pass a narrow, reasonable law dealing with one or two changes. It worked for Wisconsin, Texas, and 31 other states that require ID’s.

Voter ID is a common sense principle, which is why the SCOTUS has upheld it’s constitutionality. But the reason for it should the confidence of the electorate. Confidence may be intangible, but it is a visceral concern to both sides of the political spectrum. In the future, let’s Keep it Short and Simple, and we may avoid giving the liberal side a motivation to get so involved in the future.

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