US appeals court rules judge wrongly halted NC voter ID

December 2, 2020 GMT

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A federal judge wrongly blocked North Carolina’s latest photo voter identification law, an appeals court ruled Wednesday, deciding she erred when declaring the requirement was tainted by racial bias largely because a previous voter ID law had been struck down on similar grounds.

The unanimous opinion by a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel reversing a December 2019 preliminary injunction by District Judge Loretta Biggs doesn’t mean the 2018 voter ID requirement can now be carried out. But the decision improves the position of Republican lawmakers, who for years have sought IDs for voting, to require it for the 2022 elections. Biggs’ ruling had essentially blocked the ID requirement for the 2020 elections.

The mandate “must be implemented for the next election cycle in our state,” Republican House Speaker Tim Moore said in a release praising the ruling.

The 4th Circuit ruling puts aside many arguments by civil rights groups that sued over the law. They contend, in part, that the current voter ID rules are but a “barely disguised duplicate” of a 2013 voter ID law that other 4th Circuit judges previously declared Republicans enacted with intentional racial discrimination in mind. Leaders of the Republican-controlled legislature have said there was no such intent while approving either law.

“The outcome hinges on the answer to a simple question: How much does the past matter?” Circuit Judge Julius Richardson, a nominee of President Donald Trump to the court, wrote in the opinion. While citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision, he added: “A legislature’s past acts do not condemn the acts of a later legislature, which we must presume acts in good faith.”

Richardson wrote Biggs’ injunction must be overturned “because of the fundamental legal errors that permeate the opinion” and “irrevocably affected its outcome.” Circuit Judges Pamela Harris, a nominee of former President Barack Obama, and Marvin Quattlebaum, a Trump nominee, joined in the opinion.

Trials are still expected before Biggs and in state court in 2021 in separate lawsuits challenging the law implementing a 2018 amendment to the state constitution that required the use of photo ID to vote in North Carolina elections. And a state appeals court ruling that blocked the ID requirement from being imposed remains in place.

Leaders for the state NAACP and several local NAACP chapters that sued in federal court said Wednesday they were reviewing appeals options but were confident they would win at trial. “Our fight continues no matter the makeup of any court or any one decision, good or bad, on the journey to free and fair political participation,” state NAACP president the Rev. Anthony Spearman said in a release.

Biggs wrote last Dec. 31 that many of the same GOP leaders and legislators who passed the 2018 law were in the legislature five years earlier, when they had received data that broke down voter behavior by race. She suggested that racial data was still in the minds of many legislators in 2018. Biggs, who is Black and an Obama appointee, also pointed to the state’s “sordid history of racial discrimination and voter suppression” continuing to present times.

But Richardson wrote there were differences compared with 2013. A majority of voters had approved a constitutional amendment requiring photo ID in November 2018. Legislators weeks later approved supplemental laws to carry it out.

“The people of North Carolina had interjected their voice compared into the process,” Richardson wrote.

The supplemental laws also expanded the types of qualifying IDs and how registered voters without IDs could have their votes counted. Richardson pointed out the legislation received votes from a handful of Democrats following several days of debate and approved changes sought by bill opponents.

“The 2018 Voter ID Law is more protective of the right to vote than other states’ voter ID laws that courts have approved,” Richardson wrote.

The three-judge panel does not doubt that “there is a long and shameful history of race-based voter suppression in North Carolina,” wrote Richardson, but Biggs “considered the North Carolina General Assembly’s past conduct to bear so heavily on its later acts that it was virtually impossible for it to pass a voter ID law that meets constitutional muster.”

More than 30 states require some form of voter ID. Supporters of the photo ID mandate say it builds confidence in election results. But data shows voter impersonation is rare. Voter ID opponents, which include Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, have said the mandate puts needless obstacles in the way of people otherwise legally qualified to vote.