Judge blocks NC voter ID law

This photo taken March 15, 2016, shows a NC Voter ID rules posted at the door of the voting station at the Alamance Fire Station in Greensboro, N.C. A federal appeals court on Friday, July 29, 2016, blocked a North Carolina law that required voters to produce photo identification and follow other rules disproportionately affecting minorities, finding that the law was intended to make it harder for blacks to vote in the presidential battleground state. (Andrew Krech/News & Record via AP)

RALEIGH — The federal judge who blocked the newest version of North Carolina’s voter identification law cited the state’s “sordid history of racial discrimination and voter suppression” as she ordered officials not to enforce the law in 2020.

U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Biggs’ decision was released Tuesday and prevents North Carolina from requiring voters to provide identification starting in 2020. The Republican leaders of the state House and Senate, however, have asked North Carolina’s Department of Justice to appeal.

The federal court advised last week that Biggs would formally block the photo ID requirement until a lawsuit filed by state NAACP and others is resolved. Her decision provided insight into why she blocked the law, which she said was similar to a 2013 law that a federal appeals court struck down in 2016.

That court said the photo ID and other voter restrictions were approved with intentional racial discrimination in mind, and Biggs said the newest version of the law was no different in that respect.

“North Carolina has a sordid history of racial discrimination and voter suppression stretching back to the time of slavery, through the era of Jim Crow, and, crucially, continuing up to the present day,” Biggs wrote.

Legislators received a breakdown of voter behavior by race before passing the 2016 law and used that data to target African American voters, the court wrote in striking down that law. The defendants said there’s no evidence of similar behavior before the most recent voter ID law.

But the same key lawmakers championed both bills, Biggs wrote. “ … they need not had racial data in hand to still have it in mind,” the ruling says.

The approval of the new version, known as S.B. 824, was “procedurally unobjectional,” Biggs wrote. But its closeness in time to the previous version; the fact that many of the same legislators were involved in both bills; the use of “unconstitutionally gerrymandered maps” and other issues “indicate that something was amiss,” she wrote.

The legislative history of the bill, including statements from its supporters, show that “rather than trying to cleanse the discriminatory taint” imbued in the previous voter ID law, lawmakers tried to circumvent state and federal courts, she wrote.

The photo ID law would have been effective with the March 3 primary. But the requirement would have been put into motion sooner than that with mail-in absentee voters, who also would have had to provide an ID copy.

The Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the North Carolina conference of the NAACP, said he was “overjoyed” by Biggs’ decision.

“Quite frankly, tears are coming to my eyes as I read the decision,” he said. Biggs’ “strong language is so appropriate” as the nation approaches the 2020 elections, Spearman said.

“I hope it is something that will encourage people who have not exercised their right to vote to cast their votes,” he said.

After losing one court battle over voter ID, Republicans put a question on the November 2018 ballot enshrining voter ID in the state constitution. The amendment passed with 55% of the vote. The legislature approved a separate law in December 2018 detailing how to implement that amendment. Legal challenges were filed almost immediately.

GOP legislators said they had to enact an ID law because voters had approved one. But Biggs, who was appointed to the bench in 2014 by then-President Barack Obama, said the constitutional amendment was a cover for legislators that allowed them to present themselves as “faithful servants whose hands were tied.”

The argument that lawmakers had to pass this particular bill falls short, she wrote. “While the legislature may had to pass some form of photo voter-ID law, it did not have to enact one which suffers from impermissible defects,” she wrote.

The law did allow for more types of IDs to be used and allowed voters to get a free ID card or fill out a form explaining their “reasonable impediment” to obtaining one.

But legislators rejected an amendment allowing the use of public assistance IDs, which Biggs described as “particularly suspect.”

Republican legislators have urged the state DOJ to seek a stay of the temporary injunction, saying Biggs’ ruling was “inappropriate.”

Their attorneys sent a letter Monday saying it’s “imperative that you seek a stay of Judge Biggs’ injunction immediately to avoid irreparable harm to the state.”

A state DOJ spokeswoman didn’t respond to an email seeking comment on the lawmakers’ request.