N.C. voter ID lawsuit isn’t a big deal

Appeals Court greenlighting the voter ID amendment matters more

North Carolinians have waited eight years to see whether they’ll need a photo ID to vote. After a host of lawsuits (including some in federal courts), several new laws, and a just-completed two-week lawsuit challenging a statute passed 30 months ago, three Superior Court judges may soon decide voter ID’s fate in the Old North State. 

Until their decision, whatever it is, is reviewed by the state Supreme Court.*

Right-leaning people tend to say a voter ID mandate will make elections more reliable, eliminate an opportunity for massive fraud, and improve confidence in the validity of the outcomes. Left-leaning folks say a mandate would suppress turnout, particularly among lower-income, nonwhite voters.

Even so, an ID requirement remains popular. A Civitas Poll from March found 61% of N.C. voters back it; only 34% oppose it.

FiveThirtyEight noted voter ID is 

quite popular in general. [In a late March poll] from Selzer & Co./Grinnell College, 56 percent of adults favored keeping laws that require people to show a photo ID before voting, while just 36 percent wanted to eliminate them. And this isn’t an opinion Americans suddenly adopted amid 2020’s specious claims of voter fraud. In fall 2018, the Pew Research Center found that 76 percent of Americans favored requiring everyone to show a government-issued photo ID in order to vote, versus only 23 percent who opposed it. 

That said, if the academic and public-policy studies about voter ID are correct, the outcome of Holmes v. Moore won’t matter much.

Its impact on voter turnout and election results will be muted and perhaps imperceptible. The bigger question was settled(?) in September, when a divided state Court of Appeals ruled that the constitutional amendment letting the General Assembly draft, debate, and pass voter ID legislation was legitimate.

If the N.C. Supreme Court upholds the state’s 2018 voter ID law, then a handful of people who would have voted in 2022 may not. Or maybe they would.

Some studies have concluded a voter ID mandate increases turnout among nonwhite voters — perhaps because the mandate pushes groups active in minority communities to run get-out-the-vote campaigns. Others have found a modest drop in turnout among those same voters — especially if the voter had to pay for an ID. (The General Assembly has OK’d $5 million to subsidize IDs for those who don’t have them.) Still others have suggested the people who’ve lacked IDs weren’t likely to vote anyway.

The overall conclusions are … uncertain. Except people who didn’t have a photo ID before a mandate was imposed would find it easier to, say, open a bank or utility account.

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While the debate continues over the costs and benefits of a voter ID mandate, pundits and election watchers have overlooked the more important story (or, buried the lede, as us newsroom dinosaurs might say): State courts have acknowledged the General Assembly’s constitutional authority to enact an ID law.

It’s a big deal, though it shouldn’t be.

Here’s the back story. 

The NC NAACP and other plaintiffs filed suit in early 2019 claiming two constitutional amendments — one capping the state income tax rate at 7% and the other requiring North Carolinians to present IDs when they vote — never should have been on the ballot. Their charge: The General Assembly was a “usurper” body, elected in 2016 from districts that were illegally gerrymandered. This batch of lawmakers had no authority to propose a constitutional amendment.

The gerrymandering part was correct. Federal courts said the districts were illegal. But the lawsuits challenging the districts dragged on so long that it was impossible to draw new ones in time for the 2016 election.

Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins sided with the NAACP, throwing out two amendments passed in 2018. 

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The Court of Appeals in September 2020 threw out Collins’ ruling, saying it could put everything that passed in the 2017-18 legislative session, and perhaps earlier ones, in jeopardy. 

Judge Chris Dillon wrote for the court:

If there was a loss of popular sovereignty by our General Assembly, then all the laws passed by that body would be subject to attack, thus creating chaos and confusion. One might argue that our current state constitution, adopted in 1971, was void, as it was proposed by a General Assembly that had only one African American member due to the impact of gerrymandering and voter suppression measures.

The court also noted that the amendments had to get majority support from voters statewide to become part of the constitution. They did. The tax cap got 57% of the vote; the voter ID amendment 55%. 

Dissenting Judge Reuben Young said courts could invalidate constitutional amendments passed by an “illegal” group of lawmakers while letting the legislature’s “regular business” stand.

When the ruling came down in September, Brent Woodcox, a lawyer for legislative Republicans, tweeted, 

Woodcox was right. And not just in Supreme Court campaigns. Young, a Democrat, lost his bid to win a full term on the Court of Appeals. All eight Democrats seeking appellate court seats lost. Five for Court of Appeals seats and three for Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s partisan makeup shifted from 6-1 Democrat to 4-3 Democrat. Two centrist Democrats, Jimmy Ervin and Mike Morgan, seem unlikely to buy the “usurper” argument and its implications.

Because the Court of Appeals issued a split decision, the Supreme Court must (and will) hear an appeal of NAACP v. Moore. The court’s new look should make arguments interesting.

Consumer Choice Radio!

I had a fun conversation with Yaël Ossowski and David Clement on their weekly live broadcast/podcast for the Consumer Choice Center about … well, read the description! Listen to the whole thing (my segment starts at the 30-minute mark).


*A federal lawsuit challenging the ID statute won at trial, but the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision. A new trial in that case hasn’t begun.