WINSTON-SALEM — Lawyers for the U.S. Justice Department and an array of civic groups told a federal judge in North Carolina on Thursday that a sweeping overhaul to the state’s voting laws will cause irreparable harm if left in place for the November elections.
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas D. Schroeder heard final arguments following a week of testimony about the potential impact of the Republican-backed changes approved last year.
Those challenging the measures say they are designed to suppress turnout at the polls among minorities, the elderly and college students — blocs considered more likely to vote for Democrats. They asked Schroder to stop implementation of the new law until a trial scheduled next year to determine whether the changes violate the U.S. Constitution or the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
North Carolina’s new voting law is considered one of the toughest in the nation. 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.
“The state can’t play games with the most fundamental right in our democracy,” said Dale Ho, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union who was in court representing the League of Women Voters. “The evidence we’ve heard is that voters will have a hard time adjusting.”
Republicans took control of the legislature in 2010 for the first time since Reconstruction and solidified their hold over state government when McCrory was elected two years later. They moved swiftly to approve the election law changes after the U.S. Supreme Court decided 5-4 to strike down a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act.
Ho cited statistics showing that in the 2010 midterm elections, nearly a quarter-million North Carolina voters either cast a ballot during the first week of early voting or used same-day registration. More than 70 percent of African Americans who cast a ballot during the past two presidential elections voted early.
Supporters of the changes said they will ensure fair elections and prevent voter fraud, which they claim is endemic despite the rarity of cases criminally prosecuted statewide. Republicans suggest that is because the Democrats who ran the State Board of Elections until last year didn’t do a good enough job enforcing the law.
“If you don’t look for voter fraud, how can you find it?” asked Phil Strach, one of the lawyers hired to defend the state in court.
Strach is the former legal counsel for the North Carolina Republican Party. His wife, Kim Westbrook Strach, was appointed last year as the executive director of the state elections board. Prior to that, she served as the agency’s chief investigator.
The voter ID requirement included in the new law doesn’t kick in until the next presidential election in 2016. The law specifically bars elections officials from accepting college IDs, even from state-run universities.
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. Under the new law, voters will no longer be allowed to cast a provisional ballot if they show up at the wrong precinct.
Thirty-four states have passed laws requiring an ID to vote. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania’s laws were struck down earlier this year by judges who said they could be a burden to voters.
Schroeder, who was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush, indicated Thursday that he will issue a written decision in the case within the next month.