North Carolina can demand voters show a photo ID before being able to cast ballots at polling places, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday, rejecting a lower judge’s opinion that the state legislature had acted with racist intent.
The ruling isn’t the final word on the law, with legal battles still raging in both federal and state courts. But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision is significant because it said state voters and lawmakers can’t be penalized for past actions.
That marks a significant win for voter integrity advocates and a setback for Democrats, who are trying to remove ID requirements in states across the country.
North Carolina had been a key battleground in the fight, with state voters approving a constitutional amendment in 2018 to require ID. The legislature then passed a law to carry that out in 2018.
Federal District Judge Loretta Biggs, an Obama appointee, said the entire effort was tainted by a previous 2013 attempt to impose voter restrictions, which the court ruled had been written to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”
She issued a preliminary injunction.
But the appeals court said Wednesday that Judge Biggs got it wrong in tying the 2018 law to the 2013 effort. The panel said the burden is on challengers to prove discrimination, not on the state to prove it wasn’t racist.
In fact, the appeals court said, governments enjoy a presumption of good faith in their actions until proved otherwise.
“The district court penalized the General Assembly because of who they were, instead of what they did,” wrote Circuit Judge Julius N. Richardson, for the unanimous panel.
The three judges included two Trump appointees and one Obama appointee.
They reversed Judge Biggs’ preliminary injunction, though the judge is still overseeing the case and is expected to rule on a permanent injunction at some point.
The appeals court, though, suggested the law can withstand scrutiny.
“Indeed, the 2018 Voter-ID Law is more protective of the right to vote than other states’ voter-ID laws that courts have approved,” Judge Richardson wrote.
North Carolina’s law lists 10 forms of ID that are automatically acceptable, including college and military IDs, and it offers free IDs to those who can’t afford them.
The law also includes a method for someone who shows up at the polls without an ID to cast a provisional ballot then “cure” it later by obtaining an ID, or arguing there was an insurmountable impediment to getting an ID in the first place.
The North Carolina Republican Party called the ruling “long overdue.”