WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — A federal judge's decision appears to be at least several weeks away in litigation over North Carolina's photo ID mandate for voters, making it likely that the new requirement will begin when early in-person voting begins March 3.
Trial ended Monday in multiple lawsuits over the new statute, which is supposed to be implemented for the first time during the March 15 primary.
The requirement, first approved by Republican elected officials in 2013 but eased somewhat last summer, makes North Carolina one of more than 30 states with some kind of voter ID requirement now in force. But the U.S. Justice Department, state NAACP and others challenged the requirement in a state with a history of racial discrimination and racially polarized voting.
Their lawsuits also challenged other provisions in the 2013 law that in part scaled back early voting and ended same-day registration during the early-vote period.
Only voter ID was considered during the six-day trial. The trial judge had refused before the trial to block voter ID from taking effect on schedule. U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder asked both sides to provide additional documentations by Feb. 24.
Lawyers who oppose the law pointed in their closing arguments to their expert's report presented last week in court that up to 224,800 registrants lack proper voter ID. The expert also said black voters were more than twice as likely as white voters to lack a qualifying ID and face economic and social obstacles to obtain one.
A competing database expert who took the stand Monday as a final defense witness testified that the report had several weaknesses and the number of those lacking ID was inflated. There are more than 6.4 million registered voters in North Carolina.
Catherine Meza, a U.S. Justice Department attorney, said GOP lawmakers had evidence about blacks lacking IDs in 2013 while crafting the requirement but passed it anyway, a sign of intentional discrimination in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.
The Division of Motor Vehicles is supposed to provide free identification cards for those who need them to vote. A decision last summer by the General Assembly also gives people claiming "reasonable impediment" to getting an ID the ability to vote without one as long as they fill out forms and provide other identifying information. Those impediments can include things like transportation problems, work schedules or disabilities.
Penda Hair, an attorney representing the state NAACP, said the form is confusing and will funnel registered voters without IDs into separate lines at voting precincts, where they must sign other documents and worry about whether their vote will count. The plaintiffs' attorneys cited evidence and testimony to argue that precinct officials are ill-equipped to rule on whether a person without an ID can vote.
"The reasonable impediment provision does not eradicate the disproportional burden of the voter ID requirement," Hair told Schroeder. "Having to sign the reasonable impediment (form) produces real fear. It's not just imaginary."
Tom Farr, a private attorney representing elected officials who passed the law, said the plaintiffs' arguments were based on rhetoric and speculation.
"They don't have any proof that anything bad's going to happen," Farr said. He added later "there's no evidence that the state of North Carolina intentionally discriminated against anyone."
Republican lawmakers and GOP Gov. Pat McCrory, who signed the voter ID legislation, have said the mandate was a common-sense law to discourage voter fraud. Those who sued say there's no evidence of widespread fraud.
The plaintiffs last week offered witnesses who had trouble obtaining IDs through the DMV because their birth certificates had typos, and Hair reminded Schroeder of testimony about poor customer service at DMV.
Schroeder asked Meza and Hair about a similar "reasonable impediment" provision in South Carolina for people lacking photo ID. It was approved by a three-judge panel. He also asked about photo ID mandates in Georgia and Texas and took issue with Farr's comments that with any law, some citizens will find it harder to comply than others.
"The right to vote is fundamental," Schroeder said. "It's got to be freely available."
Schroeder presided over a trial last July on the other election law provisions but has not yet ruled in those matters.