A federal appeals court struck down North Carolina’s voter ID law on Friday, finding that a series of provisions approved by lawmakers in 2013 were “enacted with racially discriminatory intent.”
Among the voter registration changes made in North Carolina were requirements that voters show identification before casting ballots and a reduction in the amount the time allowed for early voting.
The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit overturned a lower court’s decision, which had dismissed challenges to the law, with the three-judge panel instead finding that the laws “disproportionately affected African-Americans” by targeting them “with almost surgical precision.” It represents the third time in two weeks that federal courts have issued rebukes of states’ voter identification laws.
“In holding that the legislature did not enact the challenged provisions with discriminatory intent, the court seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees,” wrote Circuit Court Judge Diana Gribbon Motz for the majority in the 83-page opinion. “This failure of perspective led the court to ignore critical facts bearing on legislative intent, including the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina.”
The ruling blocks North Carolina from requiring photo identification from voters, restores voter preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds as well as a week of early voting, same-day voter registration, and out-of-precinct provisional voting.
The court’s decision has been of intense interest to both the Republican and Democratic parties ahead of the Nov. 8 presidential elections, with opponents of the North Carolina law saying that the ruling should increase voter participation by blacks and Hispanics in a what is regarded as a closely contested battleground state.
President Obama claimed an unusual victory in North Carolina when he won the state in 2008. His Republican opponent , Mitt Romney, won North Carolina in 2012 — but by less than 2 percentage points.
In 2016, Democrats hope to eke out another victory, largely based on GOP nominee Donald Trump’s historically poor standing with minorities.
Republican lawmakers were already calling foul over what they regarded as the injection of partisan politics into the decision.
“Since today’s decision by three partisan Democrats ignores legal precedent, ignores the fact that other federal courts have used North Carolina’s law as a model, and ignores the fact that a majority of other states have similar protections in place, we can only wonder if the intent is to reopen the door for voter fraud, potentially allowing fellow Democrat politicians like Hillary Clinton and Roy Cooper to steal the election,” said North Carolina Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore in a joint statement.
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory said Friday that attorneys plan to appeal the decision and to review other potential options.
“Photo IDs are required to purchase Sudafed, cash a check, board an airplane or enter a federal court room,” Mr. McCrory said. “Yet, three Democratic judges are undermining the integrity of our elections while also maligning our state.”
North Carolina lawmakers enacted the election law in 2013 after the Supreme Court eliminated a portion of the Voting Rights Act that required nine states with a history of racial discrimination to receive “preclearance” from the Justice Department before altering their voting laws.
The Justice Department, NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union, League of Women Voters and others had sued the state over the law, arguing the restrictions violated the remaining provisions of the federal act as well as the Constitution.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch praised the ruling Friday, saying the underlying law “sent a message that contradicted some of the most basic principles of our democracy.”
“The ability of Americans to have a voice in the direction of their country — to have a fair and free opportunity to help write the story of this nation — is fundamental to who we are and who we aspire to be,” Ms. Lynch said. “Going forward, the Department of Justice will continue our work to protect that sacred right for all.”
Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, called Friday’s ruling a “major victory for North Carolina voters and for voting rights.”
“With surgical precision, North Carolina tried to eliminate voting practices disproportionately used by African-Americans,” he said. “This ruling is a stinging rebuke of the state’s attempt to undermine African-American voter participation, which had surged over the last decade.”
Friday’s ruling following on the heels of two major victories for voting rights advocates in the past two weeks.
In Wisconsin, a federal district judge significantly weakened the state’s voter ID law by issuing a preliminary injunction that allows voters without photo identification to cast ballots in the upcoming presidential election by signing affidavits swearing to their identity.
The New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit also ruled that Texas’ voter ID law violated the Voting Rights Act. Rather than strike down the law, as was the case in North Carolina, the court ruled that a lower district court should help fashion a remedy to accommodate those who face difficulties obtaining the necessary documents.
“This decision is the latest in a string of major federal rulings that send a clear message: Politicians have no business standing in the way of our right to vote,” said Mary Klenz, co-president of the League of Women Voters of North Carolina.
The groups that challenged the law had asked the court to consider placing North Carolina back under the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act, but the court declined to do so finding that such a remedy was “not necessary here in light of our injunction.”
Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, wrote on his Election Law Blog that the court’s decision not to require preclearance was “surprising.”
The decision would have been within the court’s discretion, he said.
“Despite this finding of discriminatory intent, the 4th Circuit refused to use its discretion to put North Carolina back under federal supervision for up to 10 years for its voting,” Mr. Hasen wrote. “Nonetheless, the finding of intentional discrimination could be the basis for a future argument for section 3 should North Carolina pass other discriminatory voting laws.