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Federal judges lift injunction on NC requiring voter ID

By | December 3, 2020
An appeals court ruling removes barriers for state officials to institute voter identification requirements. A state court injunction remains in effect.
Poster sized NC driver's license
An enlarged sample of a North Carolina driver’s license. A federal court ruling may clear the way for NC officials to require identification to vote. NC DOT Communications.

A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that a lower court incorrectly hindered plans to implement voter identification in North Carolina.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the preliminary injunction that precluded officials from requiring certain forms of identification to vote, possibly clearing a way for the state to require ID in 2021.  A state court injunction prohibiting identification measures remains in place.

In a unanimous decision, the three-judge panel overturned the December 2019 ruling by federal District Court Judge Loretta Biggs, who held that the voter identification requirement could cause irreparable harm to minority voters.

The appellate court found Biggs erred by disregarding “the presumption of legislative good faith.” The opinion also said Biggs incorrectly shifted the burden of proof from the plaintiffs — state and local NAACP chapters — to the General Assembly.

Latest in trail of attempts at ID requirements

The Republican-led legislature passed a voter identification requirement in 2013, but the 4th Circuit Court found the restrictions unlawful because they were based on a discriminatory intent.

Republican lawmakers again tried to establish voter ID requirements in 2018 using a ballot measure.

North Carolina voters passed the constitutional amendment allowing voter identification, but the action was not self-executing and required lawmakers to enact legislation governing its operation. Legislators passed Senate Bill 824, which established authorized forms of identification, such as a valid driver’s license or military identification card.

The law permits voters without identification to obtain a free identification card from the local board of elections or to cast a provisional ballot. Certain categories of voters are exempt from the requirements, including those who raise religious objections or those who recently lost their identification in a natural disaster.

When the legislature passed the laws to implement the requirement, civil rights groups filed suit, arguing that the law was unconstitutional and discriminatory.

At the end of 2019, Biggs issued a preliminary injunction, stopping voter identification from being required for the March 2020 primaries. It also remained in place during the 2020 general elections.

Is the past prologue?

In her ruling, Biggs also indicated the likelihood of a finding of discriminatory intent by lawmakers in establishing the measures.

“All this is to say that ‘powerful undercurrents’ of racial discrimination and racial polarization have historically pervaded North Carolina’s political climate —and still do,” she wrote.

But the intent of the 2018 legislature may differ from the intent of the 2013 legislature, according to the 4th Circuit Court opinion issued Wednesday.

“The outcome hinges on the answer to a simple question: How much does the past matter?” wrote Judge Julius Richardson for the court.

The ruling reverses the preliminary injunction, so the case is still set to be heard in federal District Court. A Jan. 6 court date has been continued to a yet-to-be-determined date.

Editor’s note: The story has been updated to reflect that a state court injunction continues to preclude implementation of voter identification measures by state officials.

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