RALEIGH, North Carolina — Federal and state lawsuits filed nearly two years ago challenging what's in North Carolina's election overhaul law are finally heading to trial starting next month.
But unexpected moves on the way to the courthouse could break down arguments of plaintiffs seeking to overturn the law's most high-profile component: a photo identification requirement to vote in person starting next year.
Republicans who have defended robustly their 2013 law quickly passed through the General Assembly this month changes that could allow perhaps hundreds to vote in person without qualifying photo IDs.
GOP Gov. Pat McCrory signed the bill, which will allow people who have a "reasonable impediment" to obtaining a driver's license, government ID or other photo document that the law requires to cast a legal ballot anyway if they provide other documentation. The updated law also will allow more expired driver's licenses to qualify.
While the legislature overwhelmingly approved the changes, a cadre of conservative activists says GOP leaders gutted the photo ID requirement and opened up potential fraud. Passing voter ID was a top priority of Republicans when they took over the legislature in 2011.
"The more we look at it, the more our breath is taken away at the depth of the loophole," said Jay DeLancy, director of the Voter Integrity Project of North Carolina. "There are so many ways that this bill is unbelievably bad."
GOP lawmakers disagree strongly, saying they are responding to feedback about how the voter ID mandate would be carried out reasonably. Some feedback originated from recent public hearings organized by the State Board of Elections.
"Reasonable impediments" in North Carolina's new law include illness, lack of transportation to obtain a photo ID, or a lost or stolen card.
"Turning away a valid voter at the poll is unjust. Allowing voters to game the system is unjust," said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, in a blog post. "We've tried to strike a balance — improve the real and perceived integrity of the system while not stopping valid, registered voters from voting."
But it's clear voter ID authors were concerned the lack of hardship exceptions could jeopardize the entire voter ID mandate in court. At least two GOP lawmakers have said publicly changes were made because the Division of Motor Vehicles had failed to assist effectively people obtain government IDs provided in the law.
"We've had reports of people having problems getting the voter ID that they needed, even when they had all the paperwork straight," said Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus.
Affidavits of registered voters collected for plaintiffs suing in state court recall some obstacles.
Charise Dill, 25, of Henderson County said in a sworn statement she was twice refused photo IDs at DMV offices. She said she was working two jobs and going to community college and couldn't afford a photo ID. DMV workers told her she couldn't get a free ID, she said.
"It was an embarrassing experience and I do not want to experience that again; no one should have to go through this to get an ID to vote," Dill said. Press Millen, an attorney representing individuals suing in state court, said the "landscape has changed tremendously" with the changes.
The new law "has eliminated a number of the things — and some of the most egregious — that we're complaining about," Millen said.
DMV said last week, however, more than 1,000 people have received free IDs and workers "have been carefully trained to help eligible customers request and receive" the cards, Commissioner Kelly Thomas said in a release.
While the state lawsuit addresses only voter ID, three federal lawsuits scheduled for trial July 13 also challenge 2013 provisions that reduced the number of early-voting days and eliminated same-day registration during the early-vote period.
The Rev. William Barber, state president of the NAACP, which is one of the federal lawsuit plaintiffs, said the voter ID changes may further confuse voters told of different anticipated ID requirements when they went to the polls in 2014.
"It is still an undue burden on voters," Barber said.