By GARY D. ROBERTSON, Associated Press
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina judge on Friday voided new state mandates requiring photo identification to vote and also limiting income tax rates. He ruled the GOP-controlled legislature lacked authority to put those constitutional amendments on the ballot because lawmakers had been elected from racially-biased districts two years earlier.
Wake County Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins sided with the state NAACP, which had argued that General Assembly was “illegally constituted” because federal judges had declared the district maps used in the 2016 legislative elections illegal racial gerrymanders.
The civil rights group had challenged four amendments, but only two of those— the voter ID and the income tax cap — were approved by majorities of voters in November.
“An illegally constituted General Assembly does not represent the people of North Carolina and is therefore not empowered to pass legislation that would amend the state’s constitution,” Collins wrote in his order cancelling the two amendments and the laws that put them on the ballot.
The NAACP lauded the decision. While nearly 30 legislative districts had been struck down by federal courts, the legislature ultimately redrew lines for two-thirds of the General Assembly’s 170 districts. Democrats and their allies were particularly incensed over the voter ID requirement, calling it an unnecessary obstacle for people to vote.
“We are delighted that the acts of the previous majority, which came to power through the use of racially discriminatory maps, have been checked,” state NAACP president Rev. T. Anthony Spearman said in a news release.
But Republican legislative leaders, flabbergasted by the decision, vowed to appeal quickly and seek to delay the judge’s decision. In earlier legal arguments last summer, lawyers for the GOP leaders sued by the NAACP said the edition of the General Assembly that put the amendments on the ballot was a lawful governing body. They also pointed out then that federal judges allowed the 2016 elections to proceed under the maps at issue.
By Collins’ logic, Senate leader Phil Berger’s office said in a statement, all laws approved from June 2017, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the old maps, to last December could be voided, too.
“One man with a political axe to grind invalidated millions of votes and potentially dozens of laws, including the state budget,” Sen. Ralph Hise, a Mitchell County Republican, said in referring to Collins, a registered Democrat.
Legislators passed a law in December implementing the voter ID amendment that would require people to use one of several photo identification cards when they vote in person. But it also included many exceptions. Still, critics say the law would disproportionately harm minority citizens and the poor. GOP leaders, who contend photo ID builds public confidence in elections, decided to try to add the voter ID mandate to the constitution after federal judges struck down a wide-ranging election law that included the requirement and scaled back early in-person voting.
Collins wrote the “unconstitutional racial gerrymander tainted” the three-fifth majorities in each chamber necessary to submit the amendments to voters. He said that amounted to “breaking the requisite chain of popular sovereignty between North Carolina citizens and their representatives.”
The other amendment struck down lowered the cap on state income tax rates from 10 percent to 7 percent. GOP supporters portrayed the proposal as a way to keep recent GOP laws cutting tax rates in place after they left office.
The case could ultimate reach the state Supreme Court. The seven-member body is composed of at least five registered Democrats. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who opposed all six amendments ultimately put on the November ballot, soon must fill a vacancy on the court.