If a Friday court ruling declaring North Carolina’s voter ID law discriminatory sparks a backlash against Republicans, then time and distance are on U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis’ side – though he’s one of the law’s most ardent defenders and helped get it passed in the first place.
“This could potentially affect the outcome of the presidential race in North Carolina, the (U.S.) Senate race and the governorship,” said David Rohde, political science professor at Duke University. But “it’s hard to see any kind of direct impact from this on Tillis.”
Tillis isn’t up for re-election until 2020. On Friday night, his office issued a statement to McClatchy saying the federal court ruling on North Carolina’s law contradicts previous rulings in Supreme Court cases, including one recently where justices ruled that photo ID requirements are valid and constitutional.
U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who is on the ticket this fall, declined to comment on the ruling through a spokeswoman.
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The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday ruled North Carolina’s voter ID law is discriminatory, with justices saying it was designed and passed by state lawmakers with the intent of making it harder for African-Americans to vote. The law included provisions requiring photo IDs at the polls, shortened early voting periods and eliminated same-day voter registration.
The ruling is subject to appeal but comes just three months before the general election, meaning North Carolina officials will need to move quickly to get a stay in the case or the law will not be in effect Nov. 8.
Tillis, along with Republican N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory and others, has argued that the 2013 voter ID law serves to restore confidence in elections and guard against voting fraud, though state government records show cases of fraud are rare. Tillis’ office also noted Friday that several public opinion polls have shown that a majority of North Carolinians support the contested voter ID law.
Two Board of Elections reports in 2014 and 2015 on potential fraud led to four cases across the state being referred to prosecutors on suspicion of double voting.
The mere thought that someone can simply walk into a voting booth and cast a vote on behalf of someone else fosters the perception that our electoral system lacks integrity.
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis on voter ID law, earlier this year
Within hours of the Friday decision, Democratic candidates and liberal groups in North Carolina pounced on the court news, claiming a victory and saying the ruling proves GOP lawmakers intended to disenfranchise minority voters with the law.
Such a rebuke from a court, Rohde said, is damaging to the Republican brand and could influence how independents vote in North Carolina in November.
But Tillis himself – whose legacy as N.C. speaker of the House includes shepherding the contentious law through the Republican-controlled Legislature – isn’t on the ballot this year. He assumed office in the U.S. Senate in 2015 after defeating Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.
A negative outcome for North Carolina’s voter ID law in the courts could give Tillis’ next challenger an opening to criticize him, Rohde said.
Already, one law Tillis championed in the state Legislature has been tossed out by the Supreme Court. Amendment One, a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, is no longer valid in North Carolina after the high court found such laws to be violations of the U.S. Constitution.
Tillis “was House speaker during a time in which many controversial laws passed,” said David McLennan, political science professor at Meredith College. “Both (the voter ID law and Amendment One) raise questions about Sen. Tillis’ support of civil rights, as well as his judgment in allowing legislation that he was warned might be ruled unconstitutional.”
A future Democratic challenger, McLennan said, might seize an opportunity to run on those issues against Tillis four years from now.
Still, a potential Supreme Court ruling on the state’s voter ID law could be old news by then, says Michael Bitzer, political science professor at Catawba College. If the law is struck down, it could taint Tillis’ speaker legacy but it’s unlikely to affect him in Washington in the short term, Bitzer said.
Tillis spokesman Daniel Keylin told McClatchy on Friday the former speaker is proud of his civil rights record.
“Anyone who questions Sen. Tillis' record should look to his role spearheading bipartisan eugenics compensation legislation and criminal justice reforms – efforts that have put him at odds with leaders in his own party,” Keylin said.
Tillis filed an amicus brief on North Carolina’s behalf in the lawsuit. And earlier this year, he told McClatchy he supports voter ID laws because “The mere thought that someone can simply walk into a voting booth and cast a vote on behalf of someone else fosters the perception that our electoral system lacks integrity.”
Even nearly 275 miles away from his old legislative office in Raleigh, the voter ID law came up soon after Tillis arrived in Washington.
Last year, Tillis refused to support President Barack Obama’s nomination of Loretta Lynch for U.S. attorney general. One reason Tillis gave was the expectation that Lynch, like her predecessor former Attorney General Eric Holder, would likely continue the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against North Carolina for its voter ID law. Tillis was a named defendant in his capacity as speaker of the House.
Tillis called the lawsuit against North Carolina’s law “costly and frivolous.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article gave the wrong year that Tillis took office. He was elected in 2014 and assumed office in 2015.