By Laura Wright
Amidst ongoing litigation, North Carolina recently passed a new law that changes its controversial voter I.D. laws. The 2013 voter laws were swept in with other changes to elections and, were considered to be the most stringent in the nation at the time. By North Carolina Board of Election’s estimation, over 300,000 voters, 34% of them African American, lacked the necessary photo I.D. The restrictive voter I.D. law sparked public outrage, leading thousands to protest outside the state capitol building in Raleigh in what have become to be known as ‘Moral Mondays.’ On August 2013, the very same day that North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed the bill into law, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice filed a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality. That case is still ongoing.
Now it seems that North Carolina’s legislature has finally listened. House Bill 363 loosens the requirements for voter I.D.s. In 2016, voters will not be turned away from the polls simply for lack of an acceptable photo I.D.
The new law provides a safety valve for the elderly and poor who may not have access to an acceptable form of I.D. At the polls, voters can either cast a provisional ballot, fill out an absentee ballot request, or complete a reasonable impediment declaration. Additionally, persons over the age of 70 may use an expired photo I.D. at the polls, so long as that I.D. expired any time after the individual’s 70th birthday. For those without a driver’s license, the DMV offers no-fee voter I.D.s.
The reasonable impediment declaration allows voters without a photo I.D. to present another form of I.D., such as a voter registration card, and cast a provisional ballot. The voter must also fill out a form stating the reasonable impediment. Included on the list of recognized reasonable impediments are (1) disability or illness, (2) lack of transportation, (3) lack of birth certificate or other documents needed to obtain photo I.D., (4) family responsibilities, (4) lost or stolen identification, (5) or other reasonable impediment as described by the voter.
To help voters understand the new voting requirements, the North Carolina Board of Elections created a website that explains which forms of I.D. are acceptable at the polls. The website features examples of accepted I.D., contact information for the Voter Outreach Team, and answers to frequently asked questions. There is also information on how to obtain a free voter photo I.D. from the DMV and how to get transportation to the polls.
While the Democrats largely supported the bill, both in the house and the senate, some are frustrated that it took two years to correct the deeply flawed 2013 voter I.D. bill. Republican representatives claim that the two year delay on the implementation of the voter bill was to allow them to gather and respond to feedback. Or perhaps they were responding to the constitutional challenges to the original voter I.D. provisions. Whatever the case may be, the new law provides some measure of relief for North Carolina voters.
Despite these recent changes in North Carolina’s voter ID laws, the League of Women Voter’s lawsuit in state court challenging the 2013 version of the voter ID will continue to go forward. In September, a Superior Court Judge denied the state’s motion to dismiss the suit. In addition the stay, the Judge halted the proceeding on the case until after the 2016 Primary elections. This is to allow the challengers to the law time to amend their complaint in consideration of the practical effects of the revised laws.
District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder similarly denied a motion from state attorneys during a court hearing in October. The plaintiffs will need to collect data from the 2016 primary elections to prove that the “reasonable” impediment” provision still burdens minority voters, who are less likely to have qualifying IDs. This will be tough to prove, especially in light of the federal court’s previous approval of a similar South Carolina law, on which the “reasonable impediment” provision was modeled.
For now, approvers and dissenters alike are holding their breath until after the 2016 a primary for the next chapter of North Carolina’s ID laws to unfold.