A new front is opened in the fight against voter ID.
Civil rights groups have spent a decade fighting requirements that voters show photo identification, arguing that this discriminates against African-Americans, Hispanics and the poor. This week in a North Carolina courtroom, another group will make its case that such laws are discriminatory: college students.
Joining a challenge to a state law alongside the N.A.A.C.P., the American Civil Liberties Union and the Justice Department, lawyers for seven college students and three voter-registration advocates are making the novel constitutional argument that the law violates the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18 from 21. The amendment also declares that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.”
There has never been a case like it, and if the students succeed, it will open another front in what has become a highly partisan battle over voting rights.
Over the past decade, Republicans have campaigned to tighten rules for voters, including requirements for photo ID, in the name of preventing fraud. Democrats have countered that the real purpose of those laws is to make voting more difficult for people who are likely to vote Democratic.
“There’s an unprecedented effort nationally by Republican-controlled legislatures to restrict the franchise in a way we haven’t seen in a long time,” said Marc Elias, the Democratic election lawyer bringing the age-discrimination claim. “Young voting in particular is a part of that effort.”
Proposals to change voting rules have frequently affected younger voters, particularly college students.
Multiple lawsuits against North Carolina, including the age-discrimination case, have been combined into one. A hearing on Monday is over whether to delay the law until a judge decides whether it is constitutional.
Lawyers for the students believe they can make the case that the law is intentionally discriminatory. As proof of this intent, they note that the state prohibited the Division of Motor Vehicles from registering 17-year-olds who will turn 18 by Election Day this fall. All other eligible voters could register there. In court documents filed in late June, the state said it had reversed that policy but did not say why.
The lawyers also point to the state’s decision to allow military and veteran identification cards, but not student IDs, as “strong evidence that the legislature wanted to make it difficult for young citizens to vote.”
Lawyers for North Carolina argue that the state’s voting law is neither discriminatory nor an impediment to voting. They note that most of the law’s provisions have taken effect, and state election data showed no decline in minority turnout in the recent primary.
“One way of maintaining confidence in elections is to ensure that only those who are qualified to vote are actually registered to vote,” the state’s lawyers wrote in court documents. They did not address the 26th Amendment claim, and a phone call seeking comment on it was not returned.
While courts have held that refusing to register students is as unlawful as refusing to register African-Americans, they have never been asked to address allegations of more subtle age discrimination, like those charged in North Carolina.
“If that’s a winning claim, that’s a big deal,” said Edward B. Foley, an Ohio State University law professor who runs the school’s election law center. But, he said, “there is a big ‘if’ here.”
See the Charlotte Observer and the Washington Post for more. North Carolina’s law, like the one in Texas, does not consider student IDs or out-of-state drivers licenses to be valid for voter ID purposes. You can see how that might have a disproportionate effect against college students. The arguments this week are about whether to grant an injunction blocking the law for now, with the full trial to take place in 2015. Definitely worth keeping an eye on this one. Via the Texas Election Law blog, and read Ari Berman for more.