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No immediate ruling as North Carolina voter ID trial ends
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No immediate ruling as North Carolina voter ID trial ends

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RALEIGH — A trial on North Carolina’s latest photo voter identification law concluded Friday. Now a panel of judges must decide: were Republicans in the legislature motivated at least partially by racial bias? Or were they purely trying to carry out the public’s desire for secure elections?

The three state judges hearing the lawsuit didn’t immediately rule following three weeks of testimony and arguments on the law, which implemented a photo ID mandate added to the North Carolina Constitution by voters in November 2018.

Legislators quickly approved details to carry out that constitutional amendment, such as which IDs could be used and the processes to obtain free IDs or vote without one. GOP lawmakers then overrode Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the bill, and several voters sued on the same day, arguing the law was discriminatory and would disproportionately harm Black voters who lacked easy access to IDs.

Paul Brachman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said evidence showed Republicans rushed through the law without seeking bipartisanship and protections for voting rights before losing their veto-proof majorities in early 2019.

Brachman pointed to a 2016 federal appeals court ruling, which struck down a 2013 photo ID law and other voting restrictions on grounds of racial bias, as proof the 2018 voter ID law suffered from the same flaw. Voter ID under the 2013 law was carried out briefly during the 2016 primary.

“Historical evidence is important because it reveals a pattern of elected officials using laws to target African American voters when it is politically expedient to do so,” Brachman told the judges during the online trial. “Taken together, these facts ... are compelling evidence that (the bill) was intended to entrench the Republican majority by targeting reliably Democratic African American voters.”

David Thompson, an attorney representing House Speaker Tim Moore, Senate leader Phil Berger and other GOP legislators, sought to separate the voter ID laws from what he acknowledged was the state’s otherwise shameful history on voting rights. And he said the bill received more than just token Democratic support. Key moments in the trial surrounded the role of Democratic Sen. Joel Ford of Charlotte, who is Black and one of the bill’s cosponsors.

Thompson said there are many changes from the 2013 law designed to improve ballot access while ensuring only legal citizens can vote. Republicans have said voter ID laws prevent voter fraud, which remains rare nationwide.

The current law greatly expanded the categories of qualifying IDs to include college student and government-employee IDs. Free IDs also are available from county elections boards or at early-voting sites, and people without IDs can still vote if they fill out a form at the voting precinct.

“These are not the acts of a legislature trying to intentionally discriminate against a minority to entrench itself,” Thompson said. “These are the acts of a legislature trying to fulfill their mandate to implement voter ID laws.”

Plaintiffs testified about their difficulties in obtaining an ID or voting when the old photo ID law was briefly in effect. But Thompson said the plaintiffs “have not been able to find a single living voter in the entire state of North Carolina who will not be able to vote” under the new law.

The plaintiffs’ case emphasized analysis from University of Michigan professor Kevin Quinn, who said Black voters are 39% more likely to lack a qualifying photo ID than white registered voters. Thompson pointed out the analysis left out data on other categories of qualifying IDs. Still, Brachman said the results still “speak to thousands and thousands of registered North Carolina voters who lack ID and who are disproportionately African American.”

Superior Court Judges Nathaniel Poovey, Michael O’Foghludha and Vince Rozier didn’t say when they’d rule, but planned to receive more legal filings in mid-May. Poovey ran for office as a Republican. The other two judges ran most recently as Democrats.

Any decision likely will be appealed to the state Supreme Court. There are other voter ID lawsuits pending in state and federal court. The law isn’t currently being enforced.

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