North Carolina's November election can be held under a new voting law approved by Republican lawmakers, a federal judge ruled Friday. The law is considered one of the toughest in the nation and the groups challenging it say it will suppress minority voter turnout.
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas D. Schroeder denied a motion seeking to hold the November vote under old rules, saying the groups failed to show they would suffer "irreparable harm."
"In the absence of the clear showing for preliminary relief required by the law, it is inappropriate for a federal court to enjoin a state law passed by duly-elected representatives," wrote the judge, who was appointed to the federal bench by Republican President George W. Bush.
A coalition of groups, including the League of Women Voters and the state NAACP, have filed three lawsuits challenging many changes to voting laws approved by the GOP-controlled state legislature in 2013.
The groups say the changes are designed to suppress turnout at the polls among minorities, the elderly and college students — blocs considered more likely to vote for Democrats.
In a weeklong hearing last month, they asked Schroeder to stop implementation of the new law until a trial to determine whether the changes violate the U.S. Constitution or the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Schroeder did deny a motion from the state seeking to have the case dismissed, setting the stage for a trial next year.
The law requires voters to present a government-issued photo ID, ends same-day registration, trims the period for early voting by a week and ends a popular high school civics program that encouraged students to register to vote in advance of their 18th birthdays.
Supporters of the measure, including GOP lawmakers and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, said the law was needed to combat in-person voter fraud, which they said is rampant in the state despite only a handful of confirmed cases in recent years.
"Today's ruling is just more evidence that this law is constitutional," said Bob Stephens, a lawyer for McCrory, who signed the law and is one of the defendants.
The groups that sued were pleased with the judge's decision not to dismiss the entire case.
"The judge could have completely tossed this case if he felt the state's argument had any weight," said Allison Riggs, an attorney representing the League of Women Voters of North Carolina.
The voter ID requirement included in the new law doesn't kick in until the next presidential election in 2016. The law specifically bars elections officials from accepting college IDs, even from state-run universities.
Studies show minority and low-income voters are also more likely to lack a driver's license and have access to secure housing, leading to more frequent changes in addresses. Under the new law, voters will no longer be allowed to cast a provisional ballot if they show up at the wrong precinct.
In criticizing the refusal to halt the law's provisions, state NAACP president the Rev. William Barber said the people who have heard about the photo ID requirement and may not show up to vote "will suffer an irreparable harm."
"The court appears to have lost touch with the fears and rumors that pervade poor communities, and it ignores the long history of voter suppression tricks that take advantage of these fears and rumors," Barber said in a release.
Thirty-four states have passed laws requiring an ID to vote. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania's laws were struck down earlier this year by judges who said they could be a burden to voters.
State Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, who shepherded the voting law through the House last summer, said it "feels good to have at least won this small fight."
"I'm very pleased that the judge has not found a reason to impair the commonsense election law that we passed that we've said all along gives everyone a full opportunity to participate in the election process, while at the same time improving the real and the perceived integrity of the election system," Lewis said.
An appeal of Schroeder's ruling is possible, though the plaintiffs' attorneys would have to confer with their clients before making that decision.
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