A trial in state court over North Carolina’s 2018 voter photo ID law ended with the law being struck down as unconstitutional racial discrimination against Black voters.
But that is far from the end of the fight over voter ID in North Carolina.
Republican lawmakers who support the law have already criticized the judges who ruled against them Friday and promised to appeal the decision. And there are two other lawsuits challenging the voter ID law, in slightly different ways, which are also still playing out in court.
It can be confusing to keep everything straight. So here is a brief primer on how we got here and where the various lawsuits stand, updated as of September 2021.
What’s the fight about?
Republican lawmakers passed a voter ID law in 2013, but it was struck down as unconstitutional in 2016 by a federal appeals court. The judges ruled that GOP lawmakers wrote the 2013 law with the racially discriminatory intent to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
So the legislature tried again in 2018, with a state constitutional amendment requiring photo ID to vote in person. Voters approved it, and then lawmakers wrote the details for what the rules would be.
That means there are two pieces to voter ID in North Carolina: The law itself, and the constitutional amendment behind it. Both pieces are facing legal challenges.
One lawsuit, in state court, claims the General Assembly didn’t have the authority to put constitutional amendments on the ballot in the first place.
Two other lawsuits, one in state court and one in federal court, aren’t challenging the amendment but rather the law the legislature wrote later, with the actual rules for voter ID.
Holmes v. Moore: This is the state-level challenge to the law, with the ruling Friday that found the voter ID requirement unconstitutional due to racial discrimination. It was a 2-1 decision by the Superior Court judges who heard the case, with Vince Rozier of Wake County and Michael O’Foghludha of Durham County in the majority and Nathaniel Poovey of Catawba County dissenting. It will now probably go to the N.C. Court of Appeals, since GOP lawmakers said Friday they plan to appeal. It’s unclear when oral arguments in that appeal might take place.
NAACP v. Cooper: This is the challenge to the law at the federal level. On New Year’s Eve in 2019, U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs issued a fiery pre-trial ruling that blocked the law from going into effect while the lawsuit was pending. She wrote: “North Carolina has a sordid history of racial discrimination and voter suppression … continuing up to the present day.” But the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals later told Biggs to give lawmakers the benefit of the doubt, and to lift her ruling blocking the law. (In reality, though, that changed nothing since the law was also blocked in state court.) The trial in this case is scheduled to begin Jan. 24, 2022, in Winston-Salem.
NAACP v. Moore: This is the broader state lawsuit on the legislature’s authority, and whether lawmakers even could put constitutional amendments on the ballot in 2018. The legislature does have that power in general, as long as the amendment gets a 60% supermajority of lawmakers on board. This lawsuit argued that the only reason GOP lawmakers had a supermajority in 2018 was because of unconstitutional gerrymandering — and that therefore they didn’t truly represent the state and lacked the legitimacy to propose amendments. Wake County Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins agreed, sparking outrage among Republican leaders as he struck down the voter ID amendment as well as another amendment capping the state’s income tax rate.
However, the N.C. Court of Appeals later reversed Collins’ ruling, in a 2-1 ruling that even a gerrymandered legislature is allowed to amend the constitution. One of the judges in the majority pointed out that much of the current state constitution was written in the 1970s, when there was only a single Black lawmaker in the legislature, and questioned whether they would potentially unravel all of that if they upheld the arguments in this lawsuit. The case is now at the N.C. Supreme Court. Oral arguments have not been scheduled.
Voter ID timeline
June 2013: The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in a case called Shelby County v. Holder. This ends the U.S. Department of Justice’s ability to review, and potentially stop, changes to election laws in places with a history of discriminating against Black voters — including North Carolina.
July 2013: North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature passes House Bill 589, with numerous changes to elections laws including a voter photo ID requirement, later signed into law by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.
July 2016: HB 589 is ruled unconstitutional. A federal appeals court found that GOP lawmakers wrote it intending to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” The U.S. Supreme Court would later decline to take up the case, so this ruling is the final word.
June 2018: GOP lawmakers approve a constitutional amendment proposal for that year’s ballot, asking people to vote to add an ID requirement to the state constitution.
November 2018: The amendment passes with 55% support. After the election lawmakers call themselves back in a lame-duck session to write the amendment and pass it before January — when new Democratic lawmakers would be sworn in and end the GOP’s veto-proof supermajority.
December 2018: Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoes the bill. But with their supermajority still in place for a few more days, Republicans override his veto and pass voter ID into law.
February 2019: The NAACP wins at trial in its lawsuit against the amendments and the legislature’s authority.
December 2019: A federal judge rules that voter ID does appear to be unconstitutional and should be blocked at least temporarily. This stops voter ID from being required in the 2020 elections. A similar ruling comes down in state court soon after, in February 2020.
September 2020: The N.C. Court of Appeals rules that a gerrymandered legislature is allowed to amend the state constitution, overturning the previous ruling against GOP lawmakers and setting up a final debate at the N.C. Supreme Court.
December 2020: A federal appeals court undoes the December 2019 ruling blocking voter ID before the trial. This doesn’t affect the two state-level lawsuits but does open the possibility that voter ID might be able to be put in place in 2022, depending on what happens in the other lawsuits.
April 2021: Trial is held in the Holmes v. Moore case, the state-level challenge to the voter ID law.
September 2021: The judges in the Holmes v. Moore case rule that voter ID is unconstitutional due to racial discrimination against Black voters. GOP lawmakers promise to appeal and continue the fight.
January 2022: A trial is scheduled for the federal voter ID lawsuit.
Arguments for, against voter ID
Supporters of voter ID say it’s needed to stop voter fraud by ensuring that voters are who they say they are.
Opponents say that’s a red herring, and that the real intention is to stop minorities from voting, since they tend to vote for Democrats and are also less likely to have one of the IDs that GOP lawmakers decided would be acceptable.
The News & Observer previously wrote a detailed fact-check looking into those claims:
▪ Voter impersonation, which voter ID would stop, is basically nonexistent. North Carolina officials identified just one case in 2016, out of 4.8 million votes.
▪ On the other hand, academic research is mixed as to whether voter ID laws lead to legitimate voters being disenfranchised, as opponents claim. Some studies say yes. Others say no, or that there isn’t enough evidence either way.