Justice Department Poised to File Lawsuit Over Voter ID Law
October 02, 2013, 1:00am


WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is expected to sue North Carolina on Monday over its restrictive new voting law, further escalating the Obama administration’s efforts to restore a stronger federal role in protecting minority voters after the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act, according to a person familiar with the department’s plans.

The lawsuit, which had been anticipated, will ask a federal court to block North Carolina from enforcing four disputed provisions of its voting law, including a strict photo identification requirement. The lawsuit will also seek to reimpose a requirement that North Carolina obtain “preclearance” from the federal government before making changes to its election rules.

The court challenge will join similar efforts by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in Texas over that state’s redistricting plan and voter photo ID law. Those lawsuits are seeking to return Texas to federal “preclearance” oversight.

In June, all five Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices voted to do away with a provision in the Voting Rights Act that required North Carolina, Texas and six other states with histories of discrimination, mostly in the South, to obtain permission from the Justice Department or a federal court before changing their election procedures. All four Democratic-appointed justices dissented.

Since that ruling, Republican-controlled states have rushed to impose new limits on voting. Republicans say the restrictions are necessary to combat voter fraud.

There is no evidence of significant in-person impersonation fraud, the type ID laws can prevent. Democrats say the restrictions are intended to discourage groups that tend to support Democrats, like students, poor people and minorities.

North Carolina’s law cut back on early-voting days, eliminated the ability of people to register to vote on the same day as casting an early ballot, and prohibited the counting of provisional ballots cast by eligible voters who went to the wrong precinct.

It also requires voters to present photo identification to cast ballots, but does not allow student IDs, public-employee IDs or photo IDs issued by public assistance agencies. Black voters in North Carolina are disproportionately likely to lack identification issued by the State Department of Motor Vehicles, according to state data.

All four provisions are being challenged by the Justice Department, the person familiar with the plans said.

Other provisions of the law, like banning paid voter registrations, are not being challenged by the department.

When signing the bill into law last month, Gov. Pat McCrory portrayed the steps as popular measures that would bring the state into alignment with rules in many other jurisdictions.

“North Carolinians overwhelmingly support a common-sense law that requires voters to present photo identification in order to cast a ballot,” Mr. McCrory, a Republican, said in a statement at the time. “I am proud to sign this legislation into law. Common practices like boarding an airplane and purchasing Sudafed require photo ID, and we should expect nothing less for the protection of our right to vote.”

The Supreme Court ruling in June left intact other parts of the Voting Rights Act, including a provision that bars discriminatory voting rules anywhere — whether or not the disparate impact was intentional — and another provision that allows a court, in cases in which a state is found to have intentionally discriminated, to impose federal preclearance requirements on future changes.

Election law specialists expressed caution. Richard H. Pildes, a New York University law professor, said the Justice Department faced a complex legal challenge, “particularly when some of these changes, such as reducing early voting, involve measures that make voting more convenient but don’t restrict direct access to the ballot box.”

Richard L. Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, said the department would “have a hard time proving constitutional or Voting Rights Act violations against North Carolina,” adding that proving intentional racial discrimination is difficult and “even though many minority voters are Democrats, discrimination against Democrats cannot be the basis for these voting claims.”

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has repeatedly promised “aggressive” action to protect voting rights. In a speech this month, he called the June Supreme Court ruling “deeply flawed” and said the Justice Department would “not allow the court’s action to be interpreted as ‘open season’ for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights.”