By Karen Shanton
Is North Carolina’s new photo voter ID requirement an unlawful additional qualification on the right to vote? That’s the central question in the lead argument of a state lawsuit filed against the requirement last Tuesday.
The answer could turn on whether North Carolina courts accept the plaintiffs’ framing of the ID requirement. North Carolina’s constitution sets out an explicit list of qualifications for voting. According to the plaintiffs, the photo ID law adds a new qualification to this list–which the state’s legislature doesn’t actually have the authority to do. So, the ID law is an impermissible legislative overreach.
If North Carolina’s courts sign on to this framing of the photo ID requirement, this argument could have legs. A Wisconsin circuit court judge accepted a similar reading of that state’s ID requirement and cited it as grounds for an injunction against the requirement.
However, other courts have resisted this way of thinking about voter ID requirements. Faced with a similar argument in a state constitutional challenge to its photo ID law, Indiana’s supreme court rejected the plaintiffs’ interpretation. Rather than a substantive qualification on voting, the court concluded, a photo ID requirement is merely a procedural regulation on the conduct of elections. And regulating elections is within the Indiana General Assembly’s power.
Wisconsin’s circuit court ruling was overturned by an appellate court that took much the same line. The appeals court interpreted the ID law as imposing a regulation on voter registration, which is a power explicitly granted to the Wisconsin Legislature by the state constitution.
The North Carolina General Assembly is also constitutionally-authorized to regulate voter registration. So, there’s an opening for this kind of ruling in the North Carolina case.
It isn’t the end of the legal line for North Carolina ID opponents if that happens–they can press the other arguments in this case (e.g. the equal protection claims) or turn their attention to other cases (e.g. the pending federal action)–but they’re obviously better off if it doesn’t. Other legal options aside, opponents of photo ID laws should cross their fingers for a plaintiff-friendly reading of North Carolina’s ID requirement.
Karen Shanton, Ph.D. is a legislative studies specialist and ACLS public fellow in the NCSL Legislative Management Program.