With Supreme Court ruling done, voter ID gains steam in North Carolina

Jun. 25, 2013 @ 08:48 PM

RALEIGH — Voter identification legislation in North Carolina will pick up steam again now that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down part of the Voting Rights Act, a key General Assembly leader said Tuesday.

A bill requiring voters to present one of several forms of state-issued photo ID starting in 2016 cleared the House two months ago, but it's been sitting since in the Senate Rules Committee to wait for a ruling by the justices in an Alabama case, according to Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, the committee chairman. He said a bill will now be rolled out in the Senate next week.

The ruling essentially means a voter ID or other election legislation approved in this year's session probably won't have to receive advance approval by U.S. Justice Department attorneys or a federal court before such measures can be carried out.

"I guess we're safe in saying this decision was what we were expecting," Apodaca said in an interview

In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled a key provision of the federal law cannot be enforced unless Congress changes rules on which areas of the country still need to be monitored.

The "preclearance" requirement in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act covered many areas of the South, including 40 North Carolina counties, mostly in the east. That has required laws approved by the General Assembly for both statewide elections and local elections in those counties, as well as redistricting maps, to receive a formal OK. The requirement was designed to ensure that minority voters in those areas aren't worse off compared to previous law.

Apodaca said the Senate didn't want the legal headaches of having to go through preclearance if it wasn't necessary and having to determine which portions of the proposal would be subject to federal scrutiny. "So now we can go with the full bill," he added. Apodaca also said now with Tuesday's rulings he anticipated another omnibus election law bill to surface next week.

Republican lawmakers and allies say a clear majority of citizens want voter ID because it will build confidence in the election system. Democratic legislators and civil rights advocates have criticized any photo ID bill as another barrier to free voting that attempts to remediate a voter fraud problem that doesn't exist.

Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said Tuesday's ruling "doesn't eliminate North Carolina's obligation to keep elections open and accessible."

"Now that this important tool used to fight election law discrimination is gone, the legislature must take even more care to resist new laws that make it harder for people to vote," he said. Republicans have suggested other changes this year, such as reducing the 2½-week early voting period or making judicial elections officially partisan races again.

The ruling doesn't prevent voters and groups from challenging these laws in court. The U.S. Justice Department signed off on North Carolina's legislative and congressional maps approved by the General Assembly in 2011, but several groups and dozens of voters challenged the maps in state court. A three-judge panel is still weighing those arguments.

The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the plaintiffs who have sued over the 2011 maps, urged Congress to redo the formula so that areas of the country with a history of racial discrimination will still be monitored closely.

"We ... must mobilize our fight and our votes even the more saying to Congress, it (is) in your hands and we want our rights protected now with no delay," Barber wrote.

Other civil rights organizations and Democratic officials lamented the split decision. "Undoubtedly, there will be more efforts to suppress minority voting strength," said U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., in a release, citing Apodaca's comments on voter ID.

More than 60 local or statewide election laws in North Carolina dating back to the 1970s that haven't been enforced due to Section 5 objections by the U.S. Justice Department. They include a provision in the state constitution requiring a literacy test for voter registration in North Carolina. Sen. Pete Brunstetter, R-Forsyth, previously introduced a bill that would take those laws off the books in light of what was then an expected ruling. Brunstetter said Tuesday he'd like to see the bill advance this year.