This article is the first in a three-part series on North Carolina’s new voter ID law.
In August of 2013 the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law that, when fully implemented, will require voters to present government-issued photo identification before being permitted to vote, in addition to other new regulations. Just under one year later, the new law is under review.
United States District Court Judge Thomas D. Schroeder in Winston-Salem heard oral arguments on July 7, 2014 from opponents and supporters of the law. Though a decision will not be rendered until after the 2014 elections, Judge Schroeder will determine whether an injunction should be issued in order to stop the law’s implementation before a trial in the matter begins in 2015.
At play in this debate are two major concerns that are inherent in voting systems: access to the polls and the integrity of the ballot box.
The North Carolina voter ID law has been cast as a method of disenfranchising citizens that is on par with the literacy and poll tax measures of the Reconstruction Era, but the truth is much more complicated than the rhetoric suggests. At play in this debate are two major concerns that are inherent in voting systems: access to the polls and the integrity of the ballot box.
The United States Department of Justice is suing the North Carolina State Board of Elections based on Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Act prohibits the abridgment of citizens’ right to vote based on race—the issue being whether a particular policy causes a class of citizens to have less opportunity than other members of the population to take part in the voting process. The party challenging a voting practice must convince the court that the law is discriminatory based on the totality of the circumstances.
Constitutional authority to pass voting laws is divided between the federal government and the states. Article I Section 4 of the Constitution provides that the state legislatures have the ability to determine the qualifications of voters in federal elections, but this grant of authority is followed by a provision stating that Congress retains the power to pass laws on these matters. Control over voting in a state is considered by many constitutional authorities to be one of the powers reserved to the states under the Tenth Amendment.
The voter ID law has been called “a laundry list of ways to make it harder for people to vote…”
The Department of Justice’s brief repeatedly points to North Carolina’s history of racial disenfranchisement as part of the totality of the circumstances that proves the discriminatory nature of the new law. The notion that voter laws are unconstitutional because of a state’s history of prejudicial treatment, however, has been criticized by the Supreme Court. In Shelby County v. Holder, the Court held that such arguments rely too much on past events that cannot be changed, and those arguments are too detached from current circumstances.
The voter ID law has been called “a laundry list of ways to make it harder for people to vote” because it covers a wide range of topics dealing with voting and it is easy for a discussion of the issues raised by the law to become confused by the law’s many facets. The potential injunction might not be applied against the entire legislation. Instead, Judge Schroeder’s decision could enjoin all of the law’s provisions, validate the entire law, or he may find a middle ground that would leave some of the legislation intact.