North Carolina photo ID “fix” calls broader lawsuit into question

Last week, North Carolina’s legislature passed last-minute changes to a bill in conference committee that will allow some voters without photo ID to verify their identity via a sworn affidavit and non-photo ID when voting.

The fix was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support for two reasons: Democrats were upset with the timing of the “fix,” and skeptical of its motives, but weren’t about to vote against changes that will allow more people to vote. Republicans, as I noted last week, were likely trying to head off a legal challenge to their photo ID law, with a trial set for next month.

It looks like Democrats may have gotten rolled.

Yesterday, WRAL reported that the exception passed last week has cast doubt onto the status of the legal challenge to the bill. As the plaintiffs in the case have been preparing for years to litigate against a law that has suddenly undergone major changes, they have asked a judge to delay the trial until they have had time to regroup. A lawyer for the plaintiffs told WRAL that the changes could result in the entire case being dismissed or otherwise concluded.

Voting booth via Shutterstock

Voting booth via Shutterstock

This would be a disaster. It would affirm the basic principle that photo ID laws are acceptable, so long as adequate exceptions are made such that the state can claim that it isn’t intentionally discriminating against voters who don’t currently have ID. What’s more, it gives additional responsibility to the state’s bureaucracy to enforce what are already complicated voter ID requirements — and North Carolina’s bureaucracy has proven to be really bad at running elections. Like, really bad.

As WRAL noted, even if the exception makes the photo ID requirement legitimate, plaintiffs could still argue that the court should delay the law’s implementation until after 2016. As the state has been conducting voter education programs under the framework established before the fix — telling North Carolinians that there aren’t any exceptions to the photo ID requirement — the sudden chance could lead to confusion among both voters and election officials.

As Anita Earls, a lawyer representing the League of Women Voters in the lawsuit, said, “Everyone who went to vote in 2014 was told something different.”

Make no mistake, Republicans in North Carolina would not have passed exceptions to their photo ID law had they felt that the law was on safe legal footing. This “fix” is designed to keep their electoral system at a legally acceptable level of disrepair. And it won’t take all that much luck for them to get their way.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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