N. Carolina voter ID still void after Supreme Court ruling

North Carolina Supreme Court Associate Justice Anita Earls speaks from the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh in this file photo via the N.C. Dept. of Public Safety

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A 2018 law requiring photo identification to vote in North Carolina remains invalidated after a narrow majority on the state Supreme Court agreed Friday with a lower court decision that struck it down.

In a 4-3 decision, the court’s Democratic justices said they saw no reason to disturb the 2021 ruling that voided the photo ID law. The lower court said the law violated the equal protection clause of the state constitution because it was tainted by racial bias and designed to help Republicans retain their grip on the General Assembly.

“We hold that the three-judge panel’s findings of fact are supported by competent evidence showing that the statute was motivated by a racially discriminatory purpose,” Associate Justice Anita Earls wrote in the majority opinion. “The provisions enacted … were formulated with an impermissible intent to discriminate against African American voters in violation of the North Carolina Constitution.”

The current 4-3 Democrat majority on the N.C. Supreme Court will flip to a 5-2 Republican majority in January after Republicans swept the top judicial elections last month.

The law being challenged was passed weeks after a photo identification amendment to the state constitution was approved by voters. The amendment was passed with 55.49% of voters voting yes. That amendment is also in danger of being thrown out in separate litigation.

Senate Bill 824 was passed with bipartisan support, however, Democratic Governor Roy Cooper vetoed the measure, stating that voter ID was a “solution in search of a problem.”  Both chambers swiftly overrode Cooper’s veto.

“If Democrats on the state Supreme Court can’t respect the will of the voters, the General Assembly will,” Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) said in a news release. “Regardless of the policymaking goals of the activist justices, the people of North Carolina overwhelmingly support voter ID laws. I look forward to respecting their wishes and passing a new voter ID law next year.”

“The lame duck Supreme Court of North Carolina has issued yet another opinion that defies the will of the majority of North Carolinians who voted for the implementation of a photo ID requirement,” House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain said in a separate press release.

“North Carolina voters have had enough of the disdain this court has for them and the rule of law. Thankfully, the 2022 election was a complete repudiation of this kind of judicial activism on the appellate courts,” said Moore. “Instead of learning their lesson in the wake of defeat, the outgoing lame duck liberal majority has, once again, defied the will of the voters and rejected voter ID.”

Republicans have been trying for over a decade to implement photo ID, passing legislation in 2011 and 2013. They say voter ID is designed to bolster confidence in elections, root out any voter fraud and is broadly popular. Voter ID critics say the incidence of such fraud is overblown. Thirty-five states request or require some ID at the polls, with about half asking for photo identification, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The 2011 law was vetoed by then-Gov. Beverly Perdue. The 2013 law was carried out in 2016 primary elections before a federal appeals court struck it down.

The 2018 law expanded the number of qualifying IDs compared to the 2013 law, including the ability for all voters to obtain a free ID. Procedures also would allow people without qualifying IDs to cast ballots by filling out a form. Voter ID under these rules, however, has never been carried out, since it’s been blocked by courts. The lawsuit was filed by minority voters minutes after Republicans overrode Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the 2018 bill.

The judges in 2021 found that the law was rushed through and discriminated against Black voters. Earls accepted the findings of that panel that state history shows an improvement in political participation by African American voters is followed by attempts to thwart or limit it.

The trial court found that Republican lawmakers knew of earlier evidence that Black residents had less access to voter ID than others but the legislators “did little if anything to address these concerns when raised by other General Assembly members,” Earls wrote.

Jeff Loperfido, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, praised the ruling and said he hoped “it sends a strong message that racial discrimination will not be tolerated under our laws.” Loperfido works for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which was founded by Earls. While a voting rights attorney, Earls represented litigants challenging the 2013 law in state court.

Writing a dissenting opinion for the three Republican jurists, Associate Justice Phil Berger Jr. — the son of the Senate leader — said the majority ignored a 2020 appeals court ruling addressing a federal lawsuit also challenging the 2018 law. That appeals court declared just because legislators passed a voter ID law found to be racially discriminatory in the past doesn’t presume a new version is tainted as well.

The plain language of the law shows no intent to discriminate, Berger Jr. said, and the plaintiffs failed to present “any concrete evidence that either they, or any other citizen of this state, would not be able to exercise their right to vote” under the law. That federal lawsuit is pending but may be moot given Friday’s ruling.

North Carolina’s supreme court ruling puts the state in the minority when it comes to Voter ID. As of November 2022, voters are required to present some form of ID in order to vote in 35 states, per tracking by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another three states, including North Carolina, have pending legal action.

North State Journal reporter A.P. Dillon contributed to this report.