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Plaintiffs Say North Carolina's Photo ID Law Suppresses Black Voters

A picture of people in voting booths
Joe Shlabotnik
Flickr Creative Commons

A lawsuit filed by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice challenges the constitutionality of North Carolina's 2018 photo ID law.

Paul Kearney is 71 and has lived in Warrenton, N.C., on his family farm all his life.

"It's been in the family for three generations," Kearney said while testifying during the first week of the trial over North Carolina's latest law requiring voters to present a photo ID at the polls.

Kearney, who is Black, testified in court last week that he has voted for more than 50 years.

"All of us — the poll workers and ourselves — live in the same community, they meet and greet at the local convenience store, so everybody knows everybody," Kearney said.

Kearney is one of six voters of color represented in a lawsuit filed by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice challenging the constitutionality of the 2018 photo ID law. Kearney voted during the March 2016 primaries, the only time a photo ID requirement has been in effect in North Carolina under a 2013 law that ended up being struck down by a federal court for targeting African American voters with what the judges called "almost surgical precision."

In his testimony, Kearney recalled it was late in the day when he and his wife went to their regular polling place. He had been tending to an emergency on his farm and did not have his photo ID with him.

Photo: A voting ballot
Flickr Creative Commons/ Ken Zirkel

"But I had no way of knowing when I walked in that polling place that the ballot they gave me was a provisional ballot," Kearney said. He testified he found out later the poll worker failed to inform him he needed to follow up with his county elections board to get that ballot counted, or cured — a process to fix issues with a ballot so it can still be counted.

The current lawsuit contends Black voters will be disenfranchised under this newer law, too, and are relying on expert witnesses to help prove it.

"I found that African American voters were 39% more likely than white voters to lack qualifying ID," said University of Michigan professor Kevin Quinn, a paid expert in political methodology and applied statistics. Quinn analyzed state voter files and cross-matched them with DMV records as well as databases from universities in North Carolina and state government agencies.

"And that disparity was even larger if we looked at recent voters. So among those who voted in 2016 and 2018, Black voters were about twice as likely to lack qualifying ID than white voters," Quinn added in his testimony.

On cross-examination, attorney Pete Patterson, representing the legislative defendants behind the 2018 law, pointed out that Quinn's analysis didn't factor in reasonable impediment exceptions for voters without ID nor did it include data for voters who possess passports or military-related IDs, federal forms of ID allowed under the 2018 measure.

"Voters on your no-match list could obtain qualifying ID between now and any future election, correct?" Patterson asked Quinn.

Quinn replied: "In principle, yes."

A supporter of the North Carolina NAACP holds stickers.
Gerry Broome
A supporter of the North Carolina NAACP holds stickers for those gathered in the House chamber of the North Carolina General Assembly where lawmakers debated and voted on voter identification legislation in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, April 24, 2013.

The legislative defendants say the 2018 law being challenged now is very different than the 2013 law that was struck down by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. For example, the newer law allows voters to use a wider variety of photo IDs, including student IDs and free IDs issued by county elections offices.

Supporters of the law cite the need for election security and integrity despite there being only seven cases of alleged voter fraud involving impersonation in North Carolina since 2015, among millions of votes cast, according to the State Board of Elections.

But the plaintiffs argue the newer law still fits into the same pattern of voter suppression laws from the past.

"Preventing fraud was one of the reasons given for imposing a literacy test," testified James Leloudis, a professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill.

But defense attorney Pete Patterson noted on cross-examination of another expert witness who testified the GOP-led legislature departed from typical procedure in rushing the 2018 photo ID law to passage, that some Democrats supported the measure.

And Patterson quoted a Black senator, Democrat Floyd McKissick, who didn't vote for the 2018 law but praised Republican colleagues for their collaborative approach during the legislative process, thanking GOP senators "for being open and inclusive in listening to us on the other side of the aisle and trying to come up with something that is reasonable in terms of its approach."

Over the next couple of weeks, the trial will likely feature testimony from legislators, including former state Sen. Joel Ford, the Black Democrat who co-sponsored the 2018 photo ID law.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
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