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Politics & Government

Federal District Judge Upholds North Carolina's Sweeping Voter ID Law


There's been a major victory for supporters of state voter ID laws. A federal district judge has upheld a sweeping North Carolina measure that requires photo ID, limits early voting days and imposes other restrictions. Opponents say the law discriminates against minorities, and they'll try to reverse the ruling before November's elections. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: North Carolina Republicans were thrilled with the judge's ruling. They say it reaffirmed what they've been arguing all along. State Representative David Lewis was a lead sponsor of the law.

DAVID LEWIS: The election integrity reforms that we passed in the general assembly were constitutional and do improve real and perceived integrity of our election system. I'm very pleased that the federal judge agreed with us.

FESSLER: And in a 485-page opinion issued late yesterday, federal district court judge Thomas Schroeder did largely agree. He said the state had a legitimate reason to impose the new rules. They require voters to show 1 of 6 forms of government-issued photo ID at the polls. The law also cuts the number of early voting days, no longer allows the counting of ballots cast in the wrong precinct and prohibits voters from registering and voting on the same day.

Schroeder said opponents, which include the North Carolina NAACP, the League of Women Voters and the U.S. Department of Justice, were unable to prove that voters, especially minorities, were harmed by these changes. NAACP President William Barber couldn't disagree more.

WILLIAM BARBER: We know that people - African-Americans, Latinos, women and students - have been disenfranchised by this voter suppression law, and we are appealing immediately.

FESSLER: Barber and other critics say minorities are less likely to have the required ID and more likely to take advantage of measures intended to make voting easier, such as same-day registration. Lawyer Penda Hair with the Advancement Project says not only does the law discriminate...

PENDA HAIR: We also, in this case, still maintain and will maintain an appeal that the decisions of the North Carolina Legislature are intentionally discriminatory.

FESSLER: Hair notes that the 2013 measure was enacted by the state legislature shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. It required states like North Carolina to get federal approval for any voting law changes.

Those challenging the law might have better luck on appeal. A three-judge appeals panel imposed a preliminary injunction against parts of the law in 2014, finding that it probably did harm minority voters. The state insists that's not the case, and in his ruling, Schroeder noted that African-American voter turnout actually went up after the law was enacted.

Voting law expert Rick Hasen with the University of California, Irvine, says the state helped its case by making a last-minute change. The law now allows those without an ID to vote if they declare they faced a reasonable impediment trying to get an ID.

RICK HASEN: This softening of the law provides a basis for saying, it's not imposing a great burden on African American or Hispanic voters or indeed on any voters.

FESSLER: Hasen says the bigger question on appeal might be whether the state has shown it has a good reason for imposing the restrictions. The state says it's to prevent voter fraud, but there's little evidence that's been a big problem in the state or anywhere else. Hasen says if North Carolina ultimately wins, you can expect to see similar laws in other states. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.