Watching Brett Kavanaugh at hearings on his nomination to the Supreme Court was a turning point.
It was an eye-opening day for Shakoya Brown, who was a junior at the time at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina. That process of approval of someone for the highest court in the country made Brown decide to dig further into elections for positions from the national to state and local levels. While she pursued her undergraduate degree studying communication arts and political science, she got involved in community organizing, and it became especially important for her to cast her vote from her residence in Charlotte.
North Carolina Student Shakoya Brown is involved in a lawsuit to halt voter ID restrictions.
“It was one of those things where I had to think, this is where I am, there are certain things I’m fighting for in this community, things that could directly affect me,” Brown said.
So it was frustrating to her that as an out-of-state student from Florida and a part-time North Carolina resident, she struggled to navigate voter ID requirements to cast her vote in North Carolina. “I was worried about whether or not my vote would count because I don’t have a North Carolina ID. And in Florida, there was a huge worry about absentee ballots,” Brown said.
North Carolina’s ongoing voter ID battle
The ID requirement was added to the state constitution after last fall’s election, though North Carolina has a prior history with voter ID—a 2013 voter ID requirement was thrown out in federal court. The court found that 2013 law to have targeted minority voters “with almost surgical precision” to keep them from the polls. It also did not allow student IDs to be used as voter IDs.
And although lawmakers added student IDs to the new law, several universities, including two historically black universities and some in the University of North Carolina state system, still do not qualify. Spokespeople for UNC Charlotte and UNC Chapel Hill have said they are working with the university system and board of elections on going forward with updating their IDs.
“There’s very little students can do to make sure their student IDs get approved,” Allison Riggs, an attorney representing voters to halt the ID requirement, said. “It’s sort of disempowering to them because it’s up to other administrative powers.” Besides, Riggs said, “you can add some student IDs here and there, but that number is never going to be large enough to erase the racial disparities.”
Riggs argued that the new voter ID requirement, which would take effect in 2020, could disenfranchise voters from casting their ballot because of general confusion, inadequate training of poll workers, and disparities when it comes to ID access.
The six plaintiffs include Brown and another student, two disabled people, and two people whose votes weren’t counted in the 2016 election when voter ID was used. Riggs also argues that the short time period to prepare for voter ID, and to train poll workers, is inadequate and would result in disenfranchisement.
In the 2016 March primary, Jabari Holmes had to have his parents argue with a poll worker for over an hour to get him a reasonable impediment ballot that he needed because of his severe cerebral palsy. One of the students mentioned in the suit, Mina Ezikpe, was sent away in 2016 because she only had an out-of-state driver’s license and her student ID. Her passport was too far away to go back and get it. A trained poll worker should have given her a reasonable impediment ballot, Riggs said.
Mina Ezikpe is a student at Duke University involved in a lawsuit against North Carolina Voter ID requirements.
“It’s just going to be a recipe for disaster if we don’t have adequate time for rollout,” Riggs said.
An attorney representing the state board of elections, however, said that officials must start preparing for next year’s primary, and that it would do more harm to halt the process now, especially if it is later overturned on appeal. A panel of judges said on Friday that the lawsuit will move forward, but would not grant a preliminary injunction. Attorneys for the plaintiffs filed an appeal on Wednesday to seek the injunction.
And David Thompson, an attorney representing lawmakers in the case, said that it wouldn’t be a problem for disabled voters to obtain a reasonable impediment ballot, and that more student IDs are allowed under the new rules. The new law is “one of the most lenient laws in the country for voter ID,” Thompson said.
Riggs said the law is “certainly not good policy or good governing,” but rather a means to a political end. “This doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it is the continuation of a decades-long effort to get ID requirements for voting in North Carolina, and we know undisputedly that black voters disproportionately lack the issued IDs,” she said. “Race and politics in North Carolina are pretty well intertwined. If you want to hurt Democratic fortunes, the easiest way to do that would be to target black voters.”
Voter ID linked to lower turnout in other states
After Donald Trump’s Wisconsin victory, a key to his election, the state’s Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel suggested it was thanks to a newly implemented voter ID law. Turnout that year was lower than during the presidential election in 2012, and it was the first time a Republican presidential candidate won Wisconsin since 1984. Though an assumption like that is tricky to study, a 2014 U.S. Government Accountability Office report found that voter ID laws may reduce voter turnout.
According to the GAO report, turnout was cut by up to 2.2 percentage points in Kansas and 3.2 percentage points in Tennessee in the 2008 and 2012 elections, with larger decreases seen among groups such as voters between the ages of 18 to 23, newly registered voters, and black voters.
Currently, 35 states have implemented varying voter ID laws. North Carolina’s disputed law, which would require a photo, would place it among a handful of other states with strict photo ID requirements. Advocates against ID laws argue that not only do requirements disenfranchise voters, but the confusion and uncertainty around them do as well.
A 2018 Voter Engagement Survey from PRRI and The Atlantic found that a substantial number of Americans report being “not sure” if their state allows them to vote under conditions including if they cannot speak English fluently, if they have been convicted of a felony, or if they are late in paying their taxes.
Across several states, battles over voter ID are ongoing and have had varied results.
New Hampshire’s Supreme Court blocked a lower-court ruling last October that struck down a law crafted to suppress the votes of Democratic-leaning college students. In Florida, an ongoing legal battle has been waged challenging a GOP ban on early-voting locations on college campuses. In Wisconsin, a lawsuit has been filed in federal court contending that a Republican-backed voter ID requirement for college students violates the Constitution. When College Democrats groups in Michigan sued to overturn a requirement that students only vote at the address listed on their driver’s licenses, the state settled and began registering students at their campus addresses.
As the battle in North Carolina continues, Brown thinks of her father and grandfather, who remind her of voter suppression before her time. Her grandfather “remembers a time when he simply couldn’t vote,” she said. ”He always pushes me to make these changes because it matters for people older like them, and it definitely matters for people coming after me. As black voters, it’s important to have the courage in the present day so we can have progress and not backtrack.”
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