Supreme Court to hear GOP lawmakers’ case to defend controversial voter ID law

Ruling in favour of North Carolina Republicans who want to join legal defense of strict voter ID law could give GOP lawmakers greater power to defend restrictive elections laws

Alex Woodward
New York
Wednesday 24 November 2021 20:38
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The US Supreme Court will hear arguments from Republican lawmakers in North Carolina who want to join the legal defence of a controversial voter ID law in the state, raising questions about which state officials can represent the state to defend such laws, and potentially shaping how partisan influence comes into play over state-level voting rights issues.

GOP legislators argue that the state’s Democratic attorney general, who is already defending the law on behalf of the state, does not adequately represent their interests and is not doing enough to defend the law, which the state’s governor opposes.

If the court rules in Republicans’ favour, it could give GOP lawmakers greater power to defend restrictive elections laws that undermine voting rights.

The nation’s high court announced on 24 November that it will grant a hearing in the dispute, which is “not about the underlying voter ID law itself, but about the ability of the state legislature to intervene in defending the law against challenges,” according to Rick Hasen, professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine.

In this case, the debate is over whether the state’s Democrat officials – like the attorney general or governor – or the state’s GOP-controlled legislature get to speak for the state, despite their conflicting positions on the voter ID law itself.

In 2018, North Carolina voters supported a constitutional amendment to require ID at the polls, and the law was enacted by a Republican supermajority in the state legislature following a veto override by Governor Roy Cooper, who is a Democrat.

The law defines valid voter ID as a state driver’s licence or state-issued ID or US passport, but thousands of voters in the state lacked ID that would allow them to legally cast a ballot, according to a 2015 analysis cited by appeals court judges.

North Carolina attorney general Josh Stein, who is also a Democrat, is charged with defending the law against a lawsuit brought by the NAACP.

State Republicans Philip Berger and Timothy Moore said there is a growing challenge “in divided government states where the executive branch may not be enthusiastic about defending the legislature’s handiwork,” according to court filings.

The attempt among GOP lawmakers to intervene follows a September appeals court ruling that struck down the law, which two state Superior Court judges have argued is “motivated at least in part by an unconstitutional intent to target African American voters”.

“Other, less restrictive voter ID laws would have sufficed to achieve the legitimate nonracial purposes of implementing the constitutional amendment requiring voter ID, deterring fraud, or enhancing voter confidence,” they wrote in September.

The judges said that they did not necessarily believe Republicans who supported the measure were intentionally racist, but agreed that the GOP targeted “voters who, based on race, were unlikely to vote for the majority party”.

“Even if done for partisan ends, that constitute[s] racial discrimination,” judges wrote.

The Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law estimates as many as 11 per cent of eligible voters do not have ID as required by their respective states to cast a ballot.

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