North Carolina voter ID trial rescheduled again for spring in federal court

Litigation Reports

A federal lawsuit filed over five years ago challenging North Carolina's new photo voter identification mandate is now set to go to trial in the spring, with an outcome that could possibly affect what people must do to cast ballots this fall.

The U.S. District Court in Winston-Salem announced on Monday that Judge Loretta Biggs will convene the nonjury trial starting May 6 over the law, which was implemented just last fall.

While the state's photo ID requirement remains in place for the March 5 primary elections, a spring or summer ruling after the trial by Biggs to strike down the law could threaten its use in the November general election in the nation's ninth-largest state. North Carolina will have races for governor, attorney general and many other statewide races on the fall ballots. Courts, however, can be cautious about changing voting rules close to an election to avoid confusion.

The May date is about three months later than the date that lawyers for the state NAACP and several local chapters had requested several months ago. They sued over the 2018 law claiming it is marred by racial bias.

Attorneys for Republican legislative leaders defending the law had told Biggs in writing that the trial schedule sought by the NAACP groups was deficient. They also said it allowed no opportunity for the judge to dismiss the case on arguments before going to a formal trial.

Biggs held a hearing in November about the trial date and whether the State Board of Elections should be required to provide more public records to the plaintiffs about how voter ID has been implemented since last year. In a separate order Monday, Biggs sent the plaintiff’s request to a magistrate judge to recommend a decision to her. That recommendation can be challenged.

After a state Supreme Court ruling last April upholding the 2018 law as legal, the photo ID mandate was carried out in mostly municipal elections in September, October and November.

The trial date order doesn't estimate how long the trial will last. But it sets aside three weeks after the trial for the sides to file more papers.

The federal lawsuit alleges that the ID law violates the Voting Rights Act by discriminating disproportionately against Black and Latino voters to comply with the requirement. Republican lawmakers disagree and say the law builds public confidence in elections. They also point in part to a broader array of exceptions for people lacking an ID to still cast ballots when compared to an earlier voter ID law.

Previous trial dates for 2021 and 2022 were postponed. Biggs delayed one start date while the U.S. Supreme Court weighed her earlier refusal to allow GOP lawmakers to intervene in the case and defend the law in court. The U.S. justices sided with the legislative leaders in June 2022.

Biggs lifted her stay on action in the case last summer a few months after the state Supreme Court determined the mandate comported with state constitution.

In late 2019, Biggs issued a preliminary injunction blocking the 2018 voter ID law, saying it was tainted by racial bias largely because a previous voter ID law approved by legislators in 2013 had been struck down on similar grounds. The 2013 law was implemented briefly in 2016.

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