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Fight over North Carolina voting law puts Tillis in awkward spot

With a tight Senate race unfolding in North Carolina, the controversy over the state's voting law is putting the Republican candidate in a tricky position.

At least some of North Carolina’s restrictive voting law will be in effect for the upcoming election, and the state’s Republican leaders are fighting in the courts to get the whole thing approved. But with a tight Senate race unfolding in the Tarheel State, the controversy over the law is putting Republicans in a tricky position.

That’s because the GOP—including Senate candidate Thom Tillis—finds itself going to the mat for the law’s least popular parts.

Ever since the sweeping law was drafted in the summer of 2013, its GOP supporters have tried to put the focus on its voter ID provision—while opponents have emphasized its various other planks. The reason for the difference in focus is simple: The ID piece is broadly popular, while the rest of the law isn’t.

In a newspaper op-ed last summer explaining why he signed the law, Gov. Pat McCrory used the words ID or identification 15 times, but barely mentioned the rest of the law—even though voting-rights advocates say provisions like the elimination of same-day registration could disenfranchise thousands of people.

But the legal battle that has taken the spotlight this week isn’t about ID. An appeals court on Wednesday approved some of the law’s provisions for use this year, while blocking others. The elimination of a week of early voting and of a popular pre-registration program for high-schoolers got the green light, among other planks. But the court issued an injunction blocking the ending of same-day registration and the law’s ban on ballots cast in the wrong precinct. McCrory immediately said the state would appeal to the Supreme Court to put the whole thing into effect.

As for the ID requirement, it isn’t scheduled to go into effect until 2016. The court did say the state’s “soft roll-out” of the provision—in which voters are asked whether they have ID, but not turned away if they don’t—could continue.  But the legality of voter ID itself won’t be addressed directly until the full trial next year.

That has left Republicans in an awkward spot as they talk about the state’s continued push for the law. Essentially, they’d like voters to think the fight is about voter ID, despite the reality.

“We are pleased the court upheld the lion’s share of commonsense reforms that bring North Carolina in line with a majority of other states, including the implementation of a popular voter ID requirement supported by nearly three quarters of North Carolinians," Tillis said Wednesday. He played a key role in shepherding the bill through the legislature last year as speaker of the state House.

It was notable that the statement was released by Tillis's legislative staff, not his campaign, and was issued jointly with Senate leader Phil Berger—suggesting Tillis was seeking to avoid having the controversy turn into a campaign issue.

By contrast, Sen. Kay Hagan, Tillis’s opponent, was quick to respond to the court ruling. Hagan's campaign put out a statement that emphasized the law’s attack on same-day registration, which most North Carolinians support. Hagan called it a “commonsense practice that can be used to increase voter participation in our democracy,” and she slammed Tillis as “infatuated with putting up barriers to the ballot box.”

A decision by the Supreme Court to put the entire law into effect—which could happen soon—would raise the profile of the issue even further.

"If the Supreme Court injects itself in, I think that could be an issue that Hagan [takes] advantage of," said Brad Crone, a Raleigh-based Democratic consultant. 

Of course, the Senate race will likely turn on issues like education and President Obama, not voters’ attitudes about the voting law. But ever since it was passed, Democrats and groups like the Moral Monday movement have aimed to use it as a way of motivating progressive voters—especially African-Americans whose turnout could be key this year. Any attention drawn to the law’s least popular components could help that effort.

Hyping the ID requirement offers another benefit for Republicans: It might confuse some voters into not coming to the polls. Berger recently ran an ad falsely implying that it would be in effect this year. After a complaint by the NAACP, he changed the ad.