The challenge to the state’s voter photo ID law heads to trial in Winston-Salem federal court on Monday, bringing to a close the first chapter of the lawsuits challenging the state’s radical revision of its election laws in 2013.
Here’s a look at what to expect in the months ahead.
Tipping his hand
It’s been nearly six months since the court wrapped up the trial concerning most of the challenged provisions of the so-called “monster voting law” — same day registration, early voting, out-of-precinct provisional ballots – but U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder has yet hand down his ruling.
And with the March primaries less than a month away, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that the decision to come will change voting laws as they currently stand.
In part that’s because courts are reluctant to change voting laws when elections are looming. But it’s also because Judge Schroeder may have just tipped his hand late last week as to where he was heading overall in the case when he denied the NC-NAACP’s request for an order blocking implementation of the voter ID requirement for the March primaries.
In his 54-page opinion, Schroeder held that it was unlikely that the NAACP would prevail on its claims that lawmakers intended to discriminate against African-Americans when they enacted the voter ID requirement and that that requirement, as amended to include a “reasonable impediment” exception, unduly burdened the right to vote in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The exception, passed hurriedly this past summer just days before trial was set to begin in July, allows voters lacking an acceptable photo ID to show up at the polls nonetheless, sign a form explaining why they don’t have such an ID, and then cast a provisional ballot.
Here’s an excerpt from Schroeder’s ruling:
North Carolina has sought to accommodate those expressing genuine difficulties in acquiring photo ID, but it still has a photo-ID requirement. When the State did not have a reasonable impediment exception, NAACP Plaintiffs claimed the burden imposed on the socioeconomically disadvantaged was too severe. Now that the State has sought to accommodate these voters with the reasonable impediment exception, Plaintiffs claim that the exception swallows the rule and that the State need not have a photo-ID requirement. This court finds any alleged diminution in achieving the State’s purported interest to be more than offset by the reduction of burden achieved by the reasonable impediment exception.
Of course, the NAACP and other challengers who did not join in the request for an injunction will have the opportunity to introduce additional evidence at trial next week and hopefully change Schroeder’s thinking.
Even so, a more favorable decision would likely not change the landscape for voting in March.
Much of the trial starting on Monday, expected to last at least five days, will focus on what impact the reasonable impediment exception has on the challengers’ claims that the voter ID requirement, with that exception, burdens the right to vote — particularly as exercised by African- American and Latino voters.
As stated in their trial brief, the challengers contend that because African-American and Latino voters still face disproportionate burdens in obtaining photo ID, large numbers of them “will be funneled into the reasonable-impediment process, a process that does not allow them to cast a regular ballot at the polls.” Whether that process will be consistently and correctly implemented at polls across the state raises the prospect that minorities will continue to face more obstacles when attempting to vote, and some may even be deterred from trying to vote at all.
They will also continue to press their claim that lawmakers intended to discriminate against minority voters when adopting the photo ID requirement and that, in any event, such a requirement has in fact had discriminatory results.
The state, on the other hand, argues that the challengers have no proof that the ID requirement and reasonable impediment exception will burden any voter, due in no small part to its own outreach and education efforts.
When Judge Schroeder will issue his opinion after trial is unclear. He has repeatedly alluded to his ongoing review of evidence from the July trial and indicated that an opinion is in the works. It may be that he is waiting to complete the voter ID portion of the case so that he can render a single opinion on all issues.
Regardless of the outcome, an appeal to the Fourth Circuit is likely, and this is where the timing of Schroeder’s opinion becomes important — especially if relief from the U.S. Supreme Court is even remotely possible. The docket there for this term, which ends in June, will be complete by the end of this month, so any such relief would have to be sought on an emergency basis and at the very beginning of the new term in October 2016.
Getting the opinion from Schroeder, pushing it through the Fourth Circuit on an expedited basis, and getting it before the high court before early October seems increasingly unlikely. And even it happens, the parties will confront justices loathe to upset voting processes just weeks before the general elections.
WRAL’s Mark Binker has a good summary of what to expect/what to know for the March primaries, here.