By Michael Biesecker
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Sweeping changes to North Carolina’s voting law, considered one of the toughest in the nation, should be put on hold until at least after the November election, the U.S. Justice Department told a federal judge Monday.
Lawyers for the Justice Department and an array of civic groups said the Republican-backed measures were designed to suppress turnout among minorities, the elderly and college students — blocs that generally vote Democratic. Supporters of the measure said they ensured fair elections, prevented voter fraud and no group was disenfranchised during recent party primaries.
Representing the NAACP, lawyer Penda Hair tried to draw a direct line between the new law and voting rights won during the civil rights era.
“We can never forget we are walking on sacred ground when it comes to African-American and Latino voting rights,” Hair said. “The long arm of slavery and Jim Crow still reaches into the present.”
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas D. Schroeder is weighing whether to delay implementation of the law until a trial set for next year.
The 2013 law championed by GOP lawmakers and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory makes more than two dozen changes, including requiring voters to present a government-issued photo ID, ending same-day registration, trimming the early voting period by a week and ending a popular high school civics program that encouraged students to register to vote in advance of their 18th birthdays.
Republicans took control of the legislature in 2010 for the first time since Reconstruction and solidified their dominance when McCrory was elected two years later. They moved swiftly to approve the election law changes after the U.S. Supreme Court decided 5-to-4 to strike down a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. The court said the 1975 formula that determined which districts were required to get Washington’s permission to change their voting practices was outdated.
Representing the state, North Carolina’s Senior Deputy Attorney General Alexander Peters pointed to the party primaries held in May and said there was no evidence that anyone was disenfranchised. Voter turnout among minorities was up when compared to 2010, he said.
The voter ID requirement included in the new law doesn’t kick in until the next presidential election in 2016, and college-issued IDs won’t be accepted. Peters said delaying implementation of the law’s other provisions would only confuse voters going into November.
“It is clearly not in the public interest to switch the rules in the middle of an election,” Peters said.
The November election will determine which party controls the state legislature and perhaps control of the U.S. Senate as Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan faces Thom Tillis in a crucial race. Tillis is the Republican speaker of the state House who helped push through the voting changes.
Thirty-four states have passed laws requiring an ID to vote. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania’s version were struck down by judges earlier this year, saying it could be a burden to voters.
Opponents of the new law contend it violates both the U.S. Constitution and a remaining section of the Voting Rights Act.
Studies show minority and low-income voters are also more likely to lack a driver’s license and have access to secure housing, leading to more frequent changes in addresses and voting precincts.
“These provisions disproportionally burden African American voters compared to white voters,” said Catherine Meza, representing the Justice Department.
More than 70 percent of African-Americans who cast a ballot in the battleground state of North Carolina during the past two presidential elections voted early.
The hearing is expected to last through at least Thursday. Schroeder has not indicated when he might rule.