Raleigh, N.C. — Voting rights groups argued Friday that a requirement set to take effect next year that North Carolina voters must present photo identification before being allowed to cast a ballot is unconstitutional.
The groups asked Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan to throw out the requirement, which was part of the Voter Information Verification Act, or VIVA, a package of changes to elections laws passed by the General Assembly in 2013.
"We have a constitution that says every qualified voter can vote at every election and any election, and then we have this new statute, VIVA, that says, 'Oh, in order to be permitted to vote, you also have to do this one other thing, which is to present a photo ID,'" said Press Millen, an attorney for several people who say they cannot meet the ID requirement.
Millen argued that voter ID either needs to be adopted by the state as an amendment to the North Carolina constitution, or the state needs to provide every registered voter with the same ID. The law lists several types of acceptable IDs to present at the polls, but he said that immediately disenfranchises any registered voter who doesn't have any of them.
Special Deputy Attorney General Alec Peters countered that the ID requirement is no different than the existing requirement that voters attest who they are to a poll worker by stating their name and address and signing a form. He also contended that anyone who doesn't have an ID could cast a mail-in absentee ballot.
"As long as someone has the ability to vote by ballot, their right to vote has not been affected, infringed on," Peters said. "They may not go to the polls to vote, but they will be able to vote. They will not be denied their entitlement to cast a ballot."
Millen said absentee voting cannot justify the argument for voter ID, arguing that absentee voting is created by statute and isn't protected by the state constitution the way in-person voting is.
Meanwhile, Peters and Thom Farr, another attorney defending the voter ID law, tried to persuade Morgan to dismiss other claims put forth by the plaintiffs, including questions about the cost of obtaining an ID and equal protections arguments.
They argued that casting any vote involves some incidental costs, such as stamping an envelope to mail an absentee ballot or the gas burned to driving to a polling site. People who need a photo ID can get one free of charge – they have to attest that they can't afford to pay – from the state Division of Motor Vehicles, and they said any costs incurred to get the ID also fall into the incidental category.
"North Carolina has not required that anybody pay anything to get a no-fee ID," Farr said.
George Eppsteiner, a staff attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, countered by noting that some people have to pay to get the underlying documents needed to obtain an ID from the DMV, such as a certified copy of a birth certificate or marriage license or a school transcript. So, the ID violates the constitutional provision that elections be free, he said.
Eppsteiner also argued that the law violates equal protection clauses in the state constitution. He noted some blacks born during the Jim Crow area might not be able to get a birth certificate at all, and people who don't drive don't have need for a driver's license, so the law is moving them into a different class that has additional barriers to voting.
"North Carolina isn't responsible whether someone didn't bother to get a driver's license," Farr responded. "This statute does not create classes."
Morgan said he would rule on the motions in two to three weeks.
Earlier, the judge refused to delay a trial in the case, which is set for July. The state and the NAACP both asked for a delay because a similar federal lawsuit also is expected to go to trial this summer, which wouldn't give either side time to prepare for both. Other parties in the state case pushed to keep it on schedule, noting the federal case might get pushed back and citing the need for the issue to be settled before the North Carolina primary in March 2016.