After hearing exhaustive arguments over the past year and a half, a federal judge in Winston-Salem is set to rule on North Carolina’s sweeping election overhaul. Two summers ago, the U.S. Justice Department and others suing North Carolina tried to convince judge Thomas Schroeder to put the changes on hold. This past summer, judge Schroeder presided over a three-week trial on whether some changes should be thrown out entirely. And over the past week or so, he heard the final phase of the lawsuits: the challenge to voter ID.
WFAE’s Michael Tomsic has been in Winston-Salem for much of the process and joined Marshall Terry to discuss the latest.
What’s the case the Justice Department is making?
That the ID and other parts of the overhaul will have a disproportionate impact on African-Americans and violate the Voting Rights Act. An attorney for the North Carolina NAACP put it this way in her closing argument: the ID requirement is a "double whammy" for minorities. One, they’re less likely to have ID. And two, they face greater burdens to get one.
The burden argument has been a big part of the trial – basically, the state’s past history of discrimination has led to the current reality of higher poverty and less access to transportation for African-Americans.
Did the judge have questions off of that point during closing arguments?
He did. He asked the plaintiffs how many minorities have tried and failed to get IDs since the law passed. Attorneys for both sides didn’t know.
Judge Schroeder pointed out people can get a voter ID for free as part of the overhaul. He said, if lawmakers intended to discriminate, why would they give out free IDs?
And he said that 20 or so other states had already passed their own ID requirement when North Carolina was considering this in 2013. He asked, wouldn’t the impact in those states also fall disproportionately on African-Americans?
How did the U.S. Justice Department respond?
Attorney Catherine Meza for the Justice Department conceded African-Americans are less likely to have IDs in other states too. But she pointed out Georgia, as one example, has a much longer list of acceptable IDs, so it’s not as much of a burden.
Judge Schroeder followed with, how could North Carolina enact a voter ID requirement that would work in the Justice Department’s eyes? He said it seems like the federal government is arguing North Carolina simply can’t do it.
Meza said no, it’s all about the facts in each local situation. She said one of the key ones here is that the overhaul changed dramatically after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the part of the Voting Rights Act that required North Carolina to get its election changes approved.
Did the judge ask attorneys for the state about that?
Yes, and Raleigh attorney Tom Farr painted it as simply a difference between House and Senate lawmakers. The House passed it first, and then the Senate expanded it into a much larger bill because state senators had their own ideas.
Of course, Judge Schroeder pointed out the Senate sat on the House version for a few months and only released its plan after the Supreme Court decision. The legislature then rammed it through over the final two days of the session.
But lawmakers this summer essentially watered down the ID part of the law. They created acceptable excuses not to have an ID, like a lack of transportation. How did that fit into closing arguments?
Judge Schroeder asked the state why lawmakers also seemed to spring that change on everyone without much discussion. Farr didn’t have an answer.
On the other side, judge Schroeder asked an NAACP attorney, wouldn’t amending it any more "emasculate" the requirement, and then what’s the point? The NAACP attorney also didn’t have much of an answer.
South Carolina has a voter ID law as well with a similar list of acceptable excuses. What were the judge’s questions about that?
He was clearly trying to figure out how to compare the two. A federal three-judge panel upheld South Carolina’s law. North Carolina’s attorneys say their law is extremely similar and should also be upheld. NAACP attorneys said in South Carolina, it’s much easier for voters to get IDs. For example, they can get them from county election offices, and they don’t need birth certificates.
When will he rule?
Judge Schroeder said it’ll be at least a few weeks. Now that he’s held a trial on all of the challenged parts of the overhaul (ID, early voting, etc.), he’ll likely issue one big ruling.
It’s possible that ruling doesn’t come in time for the March 15 primary. And whatever it is, there’s a good chance the appeals process could go all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.