A judge recently overturned two new amendments to the North Carolina Constitution, regarding voter ID and the income tax rate. But a big question remains: Does the voter ID law still exist, despite this ruling?
The issue is complicated because the judge’s ruling only overturned the constitutional amendments — not any other state laws. And the voter ID amendment itself did not include any details for putting voter ID into place. All of the rules and details were written by the legislature in a separate law, after the amendment passed.
That detail is adding confusion to the situation, given the narrow scope of the ruling, which was issued by Democratic Wake County Superior Court Judge G. Bryan Collins.
While the amendment didn’t itself include the rules for voter ID, it did order the legislature to write those rules.
So does the judge’s ruling only remove the state constitutional protections that voter ID would otherwise have had in a lawsuit, while keeping voter ID rules in place?
Or does the loss of the amendment also mean that the separate law implementing the amendment is also kaput?
Even the winning side isn’t entirely certain.
“What we know for certain is that the voter ID constitutional amendment was voided by the court’s Friday decision,” said Kym Hunter, the lawyer who won the case for the Southern Environmental Law Center and the North Carolina NAACP. “The question remains for another day what impact that ruling might have on the statute that implements that constitutional amendment, which is being separately challenged in two other lawsuits.”
But the legislative leaders who lost the case — and who have since appealed that ruling — are now arguing in court that the judge didn’t actually get rid of voter ID. Lawmakers say all they lost is the shield that the amendment had given the law against state constitutional lawsuits. So voter ID remains in place, they say; it’s just more vulnerable to legal challenges.
“The amendment is a legal backstop for any suit that comes through,” said Pat Ryan, a spokesman for NC Senate leader Phil Berger. “But that legislation stands on its own and was not part of that lawsuit.”
And in a separate lawsuit against the law itself, both sides also seem to be adhering to that same argument from Berger’s office: that the voter ID law still exists, even without the constitutional amendment in place.
Allison Riggs, the lead attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice which is suing over the law, asked a Wake County judge on Monday for permission to add a new constitutional complaint to the group’s lawsuit now that the amendment is gone.
Riggs said the North Carolina Constitution “explicitly prohibits” creating any additional requirements for people to vote, and that they consider voter ID to be just that. But their original lawsuit didn’t include that complaint, she said, since at the time they filed it the voter ID amendment protected the law from being challenged in that manner.
With so much confusion swirling, here are answers to some other questions you might have on this legal battle.
Will your taxes go up since the income tax amendment was overturned?
In North Carolina everyone pays the same income tax rate of 5.25 percent. That’s not going to change.
All the amendment did was lower the maximum possible rate that taxes could be raised to in the future, from 10 percent to 7 percent. It didn’t do anything to change anyone’s taxes right now.
Who might be harmed by voter ID requirements?
This is a contentious question.
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice and other activists say voter ID laws will stop certain types of people — namely minorities, college students and poor people — from being able to vote.
“This implicates hundreds of thousands of voters who don’t have photo IDs,” Riggs said in court Monday.
But Republican lawmakers disagree. In court Monday the lead lawyer for the legislature in this case, David Thompson from the Washington, D.C., firm Cooper & Kirk, said that “no one in this state would be disenfranchised.”
Thompson said about 95 percent of voters already have an acceptable form of ID, and the other 5 percent could either get one in time for the next election or could ask to vote without an ID by using what’s known as a provisional ballot.
Provisional ballots aren’t always counted — in 2016, most of the 60,000 provisional ballots cast in North Carolina weren’t counted, The News & Observer has reported — but they are nevertheless an option for people who could claim that a “reasonable impediment” stopped them from getting a voter ID.
And Thompson said Monday in court that the list of such impediments is so large that even opponents of voter ID don’t argue that people would be turned away from the polls.
“They have not pointed to any person who wouldn’t be able to fulfill one of those reasonable impediments,” he said.
What’s next for the legal challenges to voter ID?
The lawsuit over the voter ID and income tax amendments is in front of the N.C. Court of Appeals right now.
One lawsuit over the voter ID law (not the amendment) is in Wake County Superior Court, although it might move soon. Judge Vincent Rozier is considering whether to hand it over to a three-judge panel, and heard arguments from both sides on Monday. It was filed by Riggs and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
Another lawsuit over the voter ID law is in federal court. It was filed by the NAACP.
What happens to the amendments while the legislature appeals the ruling?
The two amendments are gone for now. But it is possible for a court to reinstate them, while the appeal is underway, through a legal motion called a stay. Legislative leaders have asked for one.
“No court — trial or appellate, federal or state — had ever held that a state legislature lacked the ability to make laws due to malapportionment or ill-fated districting,” they wrote.
Collins was not swayed and denied their motion for a stay last week. Lawmakers then appealed that to the Court of Appeals, too, so the issue is still unsettled.
If voter ID does still exist, will you need it for any elections this year?
It can’t hurt.
While the voter ID requirements technically will be in place for this year’s elections, the law says that everyone who shows up to vote without a valid ID in any 2019 election will be allowed to vote if they tell workers they either didn’t know about the new law, or that they simply didn’t bring their ID, or if they can claim any other of a number of “reasonable impediments” allowed for by the law.
However, people who do that will cast provisional ballots, which as noted above aren’t always counted. So if you want to ensure that your vote is counted, bring a valid ID.
There are municipal elections throughout the state this year, as well as two special elections for Congress. One is to fill the seat of the late Walter Jones, and the other is to re-do the 9th district race, which appeared to have been won by Republican Mark Harris but was marred by allegations of fraud — allegedly committed via mail-in ballots, and not the type of fraud that could’ve been stopped by voter ID.
Voter ID won’t be required in the primary or general elections for the 9th District race, due to a law the legislature passed in late 2018 after the fraud allegations became public, said Michael Bitzer, a political expert and professor at Catawba College.
On the other hand, for the 3rd district special election to replace Jones, there is still a requirement for voter ID. But both Bitzer and Gerry Cohen, a longtime political insider who serves on the Wake County Board of Elections, said it’s possible the legislature could pass a new law exempting that race from the voter ID requirements as well.
The amendments ruling was based on gerrymandering. What’s next for NC gerrymandering lawsuits?
When Collins overturned the amendments, he focused on a previous court case that found the state legislature was elected under Republican-drawn lines that were racially gerrymandered in violation of the United States Constitution.
GOP lawmakers have since redrawn those lines, as well as lines for the state’s 13 U.S. House seats that were also found to be racially gerrymandered and unconstitutional.
Now there are two ongoing lawsuits challenging state and federal election districts, calling them partisan — instead of racial — gerrymanders.
One lawsuit, which was filed in state court in 2018, says the lines for state House and Senate districts violate the North Carolina Constitution. There has not yet been a ruling in that case.
The other lawsuit, which started as two cases in federal court that were merged in 2017, says the lines for U.S. House districts violate the United States Constitution. The legislature lost at trial in 2018, with the districts being ruled unconstitutional, but the districts were allowed to stay in place for the 2018 elections.
The legislature appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Oral arguments are scheduled for later this month. If the justices uphold the trial court’s ruling, it will be the first time ever that the Supreme Court has ruled against partisan gerrymandering, as opposed to racial gerrymandering, which for decades has caused districts to be ruled unconstitutional.