State voter ID trial to start Sept. 26

Posted July 11, 2016 4:40 p.m. EDT
Updated July 11, 2016 4:46 p.m. EDT

 Election sign.

— A North Carolina judge will decide whether the state's new requirement to show photo identification in order to vote in person violates the state's constitution in a case that is scheduled to wrap up less than month before in-person early voting will begin this fall.

Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan rejected calls from lawyers for the state and legislature to assign the case to a three-judge panel or dismiss it altogether. Instead, he set the case for trial beginning Sept. 26.

"I will move this case forward as expediently as possible," Morgan said in court Monday afternoon.

That decision throws another twist into an election year that has already been shaped by a number of court rulings and could be shaken further depending on rulings pending in other courts. A federal case over North Carolina's voter ID requirement is pending before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, while other cases involving legislative and congressional districts are at various stages in front of federal district courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We were trying to have our state trial on voter ID first," said Anita Earls, director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and a lawyer representing the North Carolina League of Women Voters, the A. Phillip Randolph Institute and some individual voters. "It's a completely different legal standard."

In the federal case, opponents of the voter ID requirement have tried to convince federal judges that the law violates the federal Voting Rights Act. The state lawsuit hinges on whether voter ID represents an additional qualification for voting not envisioned by the state constitution.

"That's the same argument that carried the day in Arkansas," Earls said, pointing to a similar case.

Advocates of voter ID say that it will help cut down on in-person voter fraud. The March primary was the first election in North Carolina to require voters to show an ID. Opponents of the voter ID requirement say that it will disenfranchise vulnerable populations, including the very poor, students and elderly voters who might have problems getting IDs either due to trouble rounding up the necessary documents or making it to a state Division of Motor Vehicles office.

Backers of the voter ID requirement point out that the state offers free IDs and that a provision in the law that allows voters to state a "reasonable impediment" in lieu of showing an ID provides a safeguard.

Lawyers on both sides of the case suggested in court that much of the evidence and many of the witnesses they're likely to bring to trial will be the same as were at play in the federal case.

Even if the case takes only a week to hear in court, Morgan will almost certainly issue his ruling in the early days of October. Early in-person voting begins Oct. 27. In addition to Morgan's ruling, the case will likely be appealed, and the state has already challenged some of his rulings in filings before the state Court of Appeals.

Another interesting twist in the case involves Morgan himself. Morgan is running for state Supreme Court against incumbent Justice Bob Edmunds. While party affiliations aren't listed on the ballot for Supreme Court, Edmunds is a Republican, Morgan is a Democrat and both are explicitly backed by their respective parties. Democrats have generally opposed the voter ID rules because the voters affected are more likely to be Democratic voters.