North Carolina Dems fight new voter ID law

Democrats are hoping to put the brakes on North Carolina’s stringent new voting laws, which could hurt their chances in the state’s Senate race if they’re fully implemented. 

Their efforts officially began on Monday as oral arguments commenced in the challenge to the laws, which opponents say unfairly target minorities and young voters by putting in place new voter ID requirements and shrinking registration periods. 

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Both parties are tensely awaiting a federal judge’s decision on whether the changes should be put in place for this fall’s election or stayed while the court works its way through deciding on the case in 2015. How the judge rules will have an impact on Sen. Kay Hagan’s (D-N.C.) reelection chances, with Democrats leaning on strong support from African-Americans and new voters to keep the seat. 

North Carolina Republicans, including Hagan’s opponent, state Speaker Thom Tillis (R), passed the sweeping changes to the state’s voting laws in August, just days after the Supreme Court struck down a core part of the Voting Rights Act. The state’s new law requires government identification in order to vote, eliminated North Carolina’s same-day voter registration, shrank the state’s early-voting period from 17 to 10 days, eliminated Sunday voting and got rid of early-voting registration for those turning 18 by Election Day.

Those laws are being challenged in court by the U.S. Department of Justice, the League of Women Voters and a number of civil rights groups, including the North Carolina NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union. Because of the Supreme Court’s decision, the law is currently in place, rather than having to go through a vetting process at the national level to make sure it doesn’t discriminate against minority voters.

Whether the law itself is legal likely won’t be determined until next summer. But this week, a federal judge in Winston-Salem is hearing arguments on whether portions of the law should be in place during the fall elections. If he grants an injunction, reverting to the state’s old laws, it could be easier for Hagan to turn out important voting blocs in the hotly contested race.

Democrats have already been investing heavily in a major field operation to help overcome the challenges the law presents. But many privately admit that the law’s elimination of Sunday voting makes it harder to turn out African-American voters, who often are encouraged to head en masse to vote after church, and cuts into their ability to register younger voters.

“Sundays are totally gone, and it takes a week off the [early voting] calendar. It’s not something we can’t organize our way out of, but gosh, it’d be nice not to have to,” one state Democrat told The Hill.

The law has stirred plenty of controversy in the state, contributing to huge “Moral Monday” protests organized partly by the NAACP last year.

Both Tillis and Hagan are accusing the other side of playing politics with the law.

“Polls show that 70 percent of North Carolinians support the state’s commonsense voter ID law, which protects the integrity of the ballot box. Kay Hagan literally asked the Obama administration to file a politically-motivated lawsuit against the state of North Carolina to block voter ID, which shows just how fringe and out-of-touch she is,” Tillis spokesman Daniel Keylin said in an email.

Hagan’s campaign has argued Tillis’s motivation to pass the law was to suppress Democratic votes, not end voting fraud.

“Speaker Tillis passed this bill using voter fraud as a red herring. While Kay is focused on eliminating barriers to the ballot box, Thom Tillis installed new barriers for North Carolinians while making political spending less transparent,” Hagan spokesman Chris Hayden told The Hill. “Our campaign is building the biggest turnout operation North Carolina has ever seen for a Senate race, and part of that effort will be working to make sure voters aren’t surprised by changes in election law.”

Democrats say running against the law could help mitigate some of the challenges it creates by generating anger from young voters and minorities. But they’re hopeful they won’t have to test that theory.

“A great motivator for getting people to vote is to tell them that someone is trying to stop them from voting,” said one North Carolina Democratic strategist. “But we’d obviously like to stop the law from being implemented.”