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Can North Carolina's harsh voting law be stopped before November?

Challengers to North Carolina's law want a judge to block it before this fall's crucial midterms. They say it illegally hits not just blacks, but also students.
Voters stand in line before sunrise to cast their votes at a polling precinct in Apex, N.C.
Voters stand in line before sunrise to cast their votes at a polling precinct in Apex, N.C.

The fight to stop North Carolina’s voting law from going into effect before this fall’s pivotal election is coming to a crucial point.

In a hearing starting Monday afternoon, civil rights groups challenging the law — the most restrictive in the nation — will ask a federal judge to issue an injunction blocking it from being enforced until there’s time for a ruling on the merits. The measure doesn’t just discriminate against blacks and Hispanics, they say. It also illegally hits college students — a novel claim with big implications if it's upheld.

“This bill was never about integrity of the vote; it’s about politicians seeking to suppress the voices of certain voters,” Rev. William Barber II, the president of the state’s NAACP chapter, a plaintiff in the case, said in a statement. “This week’s hearing represents a fight for the voting rights of North Carolina, the South and indeed the nation.”

The case isn’t scheduled to go trial until 2015. That means if the bid for an injunction fails, voters — especially Democratic-leaning groups like non-whites and students — could be disenfranchised this November, when the state will host a tight U.S. Senate race that could help determine control of the chamber.

The hearing is expected to last a week. It’s not known when the judge will rule on whether to issue an injunction.

The law, passed by Republicans last summer in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling that weakened the Voting Rights Act, amounted to a grab-bag of ways to make voting harder. Among other provisions, it cut early voting by a week, eliminated same-day registration, and, starting in 2016, will impose a strict ID requirement. Even in the state's low-turnout primaries earlier this year, witnesses said the law caused plenty of confusion.

The law’s challengers, joined by the U.S. Justice Department, allege that the measure violates the Voting Rights Act’s ban on racial discrimination in voting, since blacks are far more likely to lack acceptable ID, as well as to use early voting and same-day registration. 

If the law is allowed to remain in effect this November, “African-Americans in North Carolina are likely to suffer substantial and disproportionate impairment of their right to vote,” the law’s challengers wrote in court documents filed in May. 

But in a novel legal claim, they’re also arguing that the law runs afoul of the 26th Amendment, which gave 18, 19, and 20-year-olds the right to vote after it took effect in 1971. The amendment guarantees that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.” 

The age discrimination claim, originally made in a court filing last year, was first reported Saturday by the New York Times.

Several of the law’s provisions hit college students hard: Because they move often, students are more likely than other voters to take advantage of same-day registration. Under the ID requirement, student IDs aren’t allowed, even from state universities. Most directly, the law eliminated a popular program which allowed high-school students not yet 18 to “pre-register” as long as they’d be 18 by election day.

There was an even an attempt to take away a tax break for students’ parents if their son or daughter voted at their college address rather than their home address—another apparent effort to put up hurdles to student voting. That provision didn’t make the final bill.

The 26th Amendment has been used in voting rights cases before. In Symm v. U.S. (1979), a federal court found that it was unconstitutional for a Texas county registrar to single out college students for a special questionnaire when they registered to vote. The ruling was affirmed by the Supreme Court.

Still, Justin Levitt, an election law scholar at Loyola Law School, said the Amendment would likely be interpreted only to ban intentional discrimination, not just incidental discrimination. That means the challengers would need to show that the impact on students was the purpose — or at least one purpose — of the law. "That's a very tough standard to meet," said Levitt.

But if the age discrimination claim were to be upheld, it could open the door to other efforts to challenge laws that make voting harder for students. One existing law it could affect is an ID law in Texas, which also doesn’t accept student IDs (though it does accept firearms permits).

Still, the heart of the challenge to the law is the race bias claim. Earlier this year, lawyers for the plaintiffs won access to emails sent by Republican lawmakers as they crafted the law and strategized on how to pass it. The lawyers hope to use those emails to show that the measure’s backers knew it would hit non-whites hardest — and perhaps even that it was designed to do so.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Advancement Project are helping to bring the case to court.