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Is Age The New Frontier Of Voting Rights?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. For the past few years, we've been following controversies over the new voter ID laws that a number of states have adopted, usually setting new requirements for identification that voters need to produce in order to vote. Republicans have spearheaded many of these changes, saying that they are needed to combat fraud. Most often challenges have come from racial minorities who say that the requirements pose a disproportionate burden on them, or are intended to discourage them from voting. But now there is a new challenge. In a case before the U.S. District Court in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, college students are claiming that that state's voter ID law, adopted last year, discriminates against young voters. These laws don't go into effect until 2016 but a victory for the students and their partners in the case could put other aspects of the law on hold. We wanted to know more about this, so we're joined now by New York Times reporter Matt Apuzzo, who's been covering this story. Matt thanks so much for joining us once again.

MATT APUZZO: Great to be back.

MARTIN: So what parts of North Carolina's voter ID law are these students challenging?

APUZZO: So you really have to look at it on two prongs, right? So there's the one aspect, which is the Department of Justice, the NAACP and all these civil rights groups were challenging the whole law - the voter ID component. Also, the elimination of same-day registration, the reduction in times, early voting. So the law in its totality is also under fire. But separately, these students have joined the lawsuit and they've said this specifically discriminates against young voters under the 26th Amendment. Now, if you're like me - I'm a legal guy - but the 26th Amendment. What the heck's that 26th Amendment? The 26th Amendment is the amendment that lowered the voting age to 18. But it didn't say the voting age will be 18, it said nobody shall make any laws that would restrict the right of anybody who received - attained the age of 18 to vote. So it's written very much like an anti-discrimination law. So if this works, this would really open up a new front in the fight over sort of voting access laws.

MARTIN: Is this what makes this different from the other challenges to the law?

APUZZO: Right, so they've sort of - the court in the name of trying to make things all, you know, more convenient, they've kind of added all these cases into one. So it's all one case now. But what's unique about what the students are asking is there's never been a case quite like this. It's claimed the 26th Amendment, it's basically on par with the 14th Amendment, which is obviously racial discrimination.

MARTIN: Now, how did this get to the courts? I mean, you know, sometimes plaintiffs are recruited for cases. I mean, that's not a secret that people sometimes look around for people who are well-positioned to make an argument. How did this case come about, or did these students try to vote and then were turned away or were their student IDs rejected? How did this come about?

APUZZO: Well, since the student ID - since the law on the ID portion hasn't taken effect, nobody's been turned away from voting at this point. You know, they're really challenging it to try to keep it from taking effect. I think it's pretty clear that these - the plaintiffs here, if not recruited, are clearly of like minds. I mean, we're talking about the president and vice president of various, you know, student democratic groups - as in student Democrats, not democratic.

MARTIN: Well, are they mostly Democrats though? To that end though, I mean...


MARTIN: ...What about Republican students? We know that there were young Republican groups on these campuses, you know, as well.


MARTIN: We know that younger people have tended to vote Democratic in recent elections in North Carolina, but...

APUZZO: It's not just that they've tended to. I mean, for the last two elections, I mean, it's been nearly two to one in the 18-29 age group category. It's overwhelming in North Carolina for that age group that Obama - in 2008, Obama carried the state and he didn't carry any other age groups other than the young voter. But they turned out in such huge numbers, and so overwhelmingly for him, it didn't matter that Obama lost every single other age group. He just won among young voters. So it just speaks about the potency that this demographic has, both obviously in North Carolina but certainly nationwide.

MARTIN: What about the other side of the argument though? As we mentioned, the driver of these changes have been Republicans in a number of states where Republicans in the governor's office or hold the legislature. And their argument has been that this is necessary to counter fraud. Is there any evidence that voter fraud has affected recent elections? Apart from that you know anecdotal evidence, is there any evidence that it has?

APUZZO: Well, there's no evidence of kind of widespread sort of in person voting fraud that people are most afraid of. But what there is a lot of evidence is - is that the voting rolls are just a mess. I mean, think about it - I moved from - we've all moved in our lives - I moved from Connecticut to D.C. When I got here, I registered to vote. It never even kind of occurred to me to change - to cancel my registration in Connecticut. I have no idea if I'm still registered in Connecticut. You know, we've all had family members pass on. And as you're taken care of - you know - you're getting their affairs in order, does anybody think to alert the state that somebody's died? I think we all kind of assume well, the government will catch up, right? I mean, the records will catch up. And usually they do but lots of times they don't. So there are - you know - there are lots of dead people on the voter rolls nationwide. I think everybody would agree that's a problem. Now, does that mean that large numbers of people are voting in the name of dead people? Well, the Justice Department under George Bush looked into that. A number of groups have looked into that. We haven't found any evidence of kind of this organized widespread fraud. But the argument is well, why allow that to happen when you can just have a voter - an ID requirement.

MARTIN: Where does this case go from here? Talk about that if you would. What happens now?

APUZZO: So right now, like literally right now, all this week, we are going to have - there are hearings going on in federal court in North Carolina. And what these groups want to do, including the Justice Department, they are trying to ask a judge to put - put the law on hold. So stop it from taking effect for the 2016 election. So it's the voter ID component and maybe everything else too. And if a judge agrees to do that, then obviously it would be on hold until some determination is made, probably next year, about whether or not it's constitutional or not. But - so right now what the fight is, is whether to temporarily put it on hold. And then probably in 2015, there'll actually be a case, a trial, which asks a judge to make a final ruling on whether it's unconstitutional or not. And then the appeals from there.

MARTIN: I know reporters hate it when people ask them to predict - so I'm not going to ask you to predict.


MARTIN: But I am going to ask you to say about - has there been any precedent for people challenging voter registration strategies based on age, based on the 26th amendment, as opposed to on racial grounds previously? Do we know?

APUZZO: Sure. There's one Supreme Court precedent for this. I mean, this is not a - this is not an often used amendment. Courts have pretty routinely held that cities can't say well, we're just not going to register students because we don't consider you to be permanent - we don't consider you to be residents. You can't say that. And obviously, you can't - you can't say we're just not going to register African-Americans. But courts have been pretty - have a long history of ruling that there are degrees of discrimination when it comes to racial discrimination, that it doesn't have to be outright - we won't register African-Americans. That, you know, it's unconstitutional to have, you know, tests. It's unconstitutional to have degrees of discrimination. We never have really decided, there's been no case law, of whether there are degrees of discrimination for college kids, for young voters. So even if - what's interesting here is - even if the students lose, they kind of win, as long as a judge says - I buy your argument that you can make a claim here, but you failed - even if you fail to make it, just if he buys the argument that young voters can make a discrimination claim in the same way minorities can make a discrimination claim under the 14th amendment, that I think would probably be a win in the eyes of a lot democratic and sort of voter advocacy groups.

MARTIN: That's Matt Apuzzo. He's a reporter for the New York Times. He's been covering the legal challenge to put ID laws in North Carolina. Matt, thanks so much for joining us.

APUZZO: Great, thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.