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Appeals Court Considers North Carolina Voting Law


North Carolina says it's not trying to make it harder for minorities to vote. Voting rights advocates disagree. A case challenging the state's voting law, which includes strict photo I.D. requirements, went before a federal appeals court today. Two months ago, a lower court upheld this law. The outcome of this case could be pivotal in the November elections. NPR's Pam Fessler was in federal court this morning. She's in Richmond, Va. and joins us now. And Pam, just describe what was it like in the courtroom?

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Well, Audie, it was packed. There were two busloads of voters who had come up from North Carolina just to hear the arguments. Most of them were older African-Americans, who opponents of the law say are among those who are most harmed by the state's new voting requirements.

CORNISH: Why is the law so controversial?

FESSLER: Well, not only does it impose a photo ID requirement but it also shortens early voting - the period of early voting - by a week. And it also got rid of a lot of conveniences that Democrats had enacted when they were controlling the state, such as allowing voters who cast their ballots in the wrong precinct to still have their votes counted. So the U.S. Justice Department today and the state NAACP argued that the law discriminates against minority voters because they're less likely to have the required photo ID and also twice as likely to use some of these conveniences, like early voting. And they also argued that the state's Republican-controlled legislature passed the law with the intent of suppressing votes, especially among those who tend to vote Democratic.

CORNISH: And North Carolina, how is it responding? I mentioned earlier that the state maintains it's not trying to create barriers for minorities. What are their arguments in court?

FESSLER: Well, of course, they deny that they were trying to prevent anybody from voting. And one of the things that the attorneys did point to is the fact that African-American voter participation went up in the state in 2014 after the law was enacted. They also pointed to some last-minute changes that they made in the law, including a provision that if somebody didn't have the right I.D., they could still vote if they signed an affidavit saying that they faced what's called a reasonable impediment to getting an I.D. - maybe they didn't have access to their birth certificate or something else. They also said that the law is needed to protect what they called the integrity of the election process and that the opponents just didn't prove that it had a discriminatory impact.

CORNISH: Any sense so far from the appeals court judges which way they're leaning?

FESSLER: So Audie, this was the same three-judge panel that issued an injunction against this law before the 2014 election. So voting rights groups are fairly optimistic that the judges will be sympathetic. One never knows. However, one of the judges, Henry Floyd, after noting that the state passed this law almost immediately after the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act, he said - and this is a quote - "that looks pretty bad to me."

CORNISH: But what are the implications beyond North Carolina? I mean, what could it mean for the national election?

FESSLER: Well, first of all, North Carolina is a swing state in the presidential election. So if the opponents of the law are correct and these measures prevent some Democratic voters from going to the polls, it could matter in a close election. Secondly, this case is seen as a test case for challenges to a lot of other voter I.D. laws and other restrictions that are being passed in a lot of different states. So the parties are hoping that ultimately it will end up before the Supreme Court either this case or possibly a Texas voter I.D. case and that we'll get some type of definitive decision from the Supreme Court about the constitutionality of these laws.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Pam Fessler in Richmond, Va. Pam, thank you.

CORNISH: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.