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After years of delays, NC voter ID trial begins in Winston-Salem

Caitlin Swain, with Forward Justice, speaks outside of the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem on Monday, May 6, 2024.
Steve Harrison/WFAE
Caitlin Swain, with Forward Justice, speaks outside the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem on Monday, May 6, 2024.

A federal trial over North Carolina’s 2018 voter ID law began Monday in Winston-Salem, with attorneys for the NAACP arguing the law unfairly impacts Black and Latino voters ahead of this fall's election.

Attorneys for the legislature and the state Board of Elections countered that the state’s photo ID law is one of the most “permissive” in the nation.

North Carolina NAACP President Deborah Dicks Maxwell testified that she believes requiring photo ID is an extra barrier to voting.

She said some elderly African Americans don’t have the paperwork needed to get a formal ID, and she’s worried they may not even attempt to get one and vote.

“The state has made it as hard as it can to keep people from voting,” Maxwell said.

On the first day of the trial, plaintiffs' attorneys made that argument repeatedly: That photo ID will hurt minorities the most, and that it’s unnecessary because in-person voter fraud is practically nonexistent.

“Black and Latino voters in this state are going to have the toughest time with this law,” said attorney Kat Roblez, with Forward Justice, who is representing the NAACP. “They disproportionately lack the IDs that are needed. If you look at things like suspended and revoked licenses, there are over one million people in the state with those right now. You cannot use that for voting, even though it looks just like you.”

Republican lawmakers placed a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2018 that required photo ID to vote. Voters approved it with 55% of the vote.

Roblez said GOP legislators then rushed to pass the implementing language for the amendment in December 2018, before they lost their supermajority at the start of 2019.

She said the GOP had decided to use a constitutional amendment to “mute future court challenges.”

Primary impact

In the March primary, 1.8 million people voted and 473 people had their ballots rejected because of photo ID.

WFAE found 1 in 4,700 white voters had their ballots rejected, compared with 1 in 3,600 Black voters. Both had more than a 99.9% success rate in casting ballots.

Attorneys for the legislature and the state Board of Elections argued that North Carolina’s photo ID law is one of the most permissive among the 36 states that require it.

They noted the current law lets voters use numerous IDs, and that voters without one can fill out a Photo ID Exception form. That allows them to list a reason for not having an ID, such as not having transportation or not having the proper documents. A voter can also say they lost their ID.

David Thompson, one of the attorneys representing GOP lawmakers, said the plaintiffs must show not only discriminatory intent and also impact.

“They cannot do that,” he said.

If a Photo ID Exception form is properly filled out, county elections boards are supposed to still count their ballots.

The bench trial, before U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Biggs, is expected to last into next week.

This is one of the last legal challenges to North Carolina’s voter ID law.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.