Raleigh, N.C. — Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein have taken steps to withdraw North Carolina's appeal of a controversial voting rights lawsuit, essentially ending the state's defense of its voter ID law and related election laws passed in 2013.
"Voting is how people hold their government accountable. I support efforts to guarantee fair and honest elections, but those efforts should not be used as an excuse to make it harder for people to vote," Stein said in a statement.
It's unclear what the practical effect of this step will be. Ordinarily, a plaintiff withdrawing from a lawsuit would leave the lower court ruling in place. However, in North Carolina, General Assembly leaders have the ability to defend lawsuits on behalf of the state.
A spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger noted that Cooper and Stein aren't the clients of the outside attorneys, so they cannot fire them, and the attorneys will continue representing the state.
"Roy Cooper’s and Josh Stein’s desperate and politically motivated stunt to derail North Carolina’s voter ID law is not only illegal, it also raises serious questions about whether they’ve allowed their own personal and political prejudices and conflicts of interest to cloud their professional judgment," Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore said in a joint statement.
The State Board of Elections also remains a defendant in the case, but a spokesman for the agency could say only that lawyers for the board are reviewing the matter.
The lawsuit involves a 2013 voting law passed by the Republican-led General Assembly. The measure imposed a photo identification requirement to vote, limited the number of days over which early voting could take place and took away the ability to register and vote on the same day during the early voting period.
Along with individual plaintiffs, the NAACP sued to strike down the law, saying that it unfairly harmed minority voters. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, saying last summer that the law's provisions "target African Americans with almost surgical precision."
Republican leaders at the General Assembly say they were not trying to discriminate, only to ensure that the election system was secure against potential fraud.
Following the 4th Circuit decision, Cooper, who was then attorney general, refused to defend the measure any longer. That's when then-Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, took up the law's defense.
McCrory lost to Cooper, a Democrat, in November, but before leaving office, he appealed the 4th Circuit decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The steps taken by Cooper and Stein Tuesday aim to withdraw that appeal and allow the 4th Circuit ruling to stand.
"It's time for North Carolina to stop fighting for this unfair, unconstitutional law and work instead to improve equal access for voters," Cooper said in a statement.
According to Stein, lawyers for the NAACP have agreed to forgo $12 million in legal fees the appellate court ordered the state to pay if the state drops its case now.
Voting rights advocates hailed the decision.
Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina said the 2013 law "disproportionately hurt African-Americans, other voters of color and youth. But in raw numbers, it actually hurt more white voters, including those who backed the Republican legislators who passed it. For example, research by Democracy North Carolina shows that only one in three (35 percent) of the voters using same-day registration in 2016 were Democrats. Most were white Republicans and unaffiliated voters, and our research indicates that most of them supported Donald Trump and other Republican candidates."