- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 23, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A judge on Wednesday declined to dismiss a lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s photo identification requirement to vote that starts next year, even though lawmakers recently eased the mandate for some without IDs wishing to cast ballots.

Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan denied the motion of attorneys for the state to toss out the suit. They had argued in documents and in court last month that litigation seeking to overturn the photo ID provision was now moot in light of a law approved in June.

The provision allows people with a “reasonable impediment” to obtaining a qualified ID to have their ballots count when they try to vote in person if they fill out a form and present other identification and personal information. State attorneys said the problems cited by those who sued over the original 2013 photo mandate no longer exist.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys said the lawsuit was still applicable because the photo ID requirement added illegal requirements to voting that would harm minority voters disproportionately.

In his order, Morgan said the situation was different from two other North Carolina legal cases when legislation was passed to repeal laws that were the subject of lawsuits.

“The challenged continued existence of a statutory photo identification requirement to vote in person in North Carolina … is therefore distinguishable from” the other cases, Morgan wrote. He also granted the request of the plaintiffs to amend their lawsuit to reflect the amended law.

Morgan’s decision also puts on hold the legal proceedings in the case until after the presidential primary, which is expected to be held March 15. That means the photo ID requirement will be used for the first time when people cast ballots in person during that election, which lawmakers also want to expand to include the other primary elections.

Defense attorneys are worried how election officials will alert the public to the new “reasonable impediment” exception when voters have been told since 2014 they’ll be unable to vote in 2016 without one of several qualifying forms of ID. They wrote that the temporary stay of the litigation would strike the “correct balance” to wait and see how the implementation would be carried out.

In granting the temporary stay, Morgan pointed out that both sides wanted the photo ID mandate to move forward, although for differing reasons.

Anita Earls, an attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, representing plaintiffs, was pleased with the ruling.

“The court has granted us what we asked for … and that’s encouraging,” Earls said in an interview. An attorney representing the state and a spokeswoman for the state Department of Justice declined comment.

The state lawsuit is separate from three federal lawsuits challenging voter ID and other elections provisions in a 2013 law.

The consolidated federal lawsuits went to trial in the summer, but the voter ID arguments were set aside for another date due to the General Assembly’s changes. The state lawsuit only challenges voter ID.

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