North Carolina Voter ID Law Struck on Appeal in Obama Win

Updated on
  • Ruling seen as helping Clinton by boosting Democratic turn-out
  • State legislators had ’discriminatory intent,’ court finds

North Carolina’s restrictive voting law was struck down by a federal appeals court that found it was passed with discriminatory intent, a major win for the Obama administration and voting-rights activists in a swing state less than four months before Election Day.

The decision overturns a lower-court ruling allowing the state to require photo identification from voters and make voting more difficult. That may aid Hillary Clinton, who accepted the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday, as she seeks to beat Republican Donald Trump in November with the help of minority voters.

“The effect you’re going to see is increased turnout among African-Americans, Latinos, and people with low incomes,” said Jason Roberts, a University of North Carolina political science professor. “Those are the people who typically vote for Democrats.”

The state’s Republican-dominated legislature was one of several that passed such laws in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision overturning part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The wave of laws triggered court battles across the U.S., including in Texas, whose strict voter-identification law was deemed discriminatory by a federal appeals court last week. A federal judge this month ordered Wisconsin to allow voters without photo IDs to cast ballots and on Friday portions of the state’s law restricting voting were thrown out.

Friday’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, blocks North Carolina from making changes to rules involving early voting, same-day registration, out-of-precinct voting and preregistration -- changes that plaintiffs groups argued were designed to disenfranchise black and Hispanic voters.

For more on court battles over voting rights, click here.

“This ruling is a stinging rebuke of the state’s attempt to undermine African-American voter participation, which had surged over the last decade,” Dale Ho, a lawyer with American Civil Liberties Union who represented several plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement.

The office of Governor Pat McCrory, a Republican who signed the legislation shortly after taking office in 2013, didn’t have an immediate comment on the ruling. Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Trump’s campaign, didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment on the decision.

Speaking in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch welcomed the ruling, saying the law targeted African-American voters “with almost surgical precision.”

The appeals court rejected the lower-court judge’s finding that the legislature hadn’t acted out of bias, noting the "inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina.”

‘Many Trees’

"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," the appeals court said.

The suit was filed by the U.S. Justice Department and voting-rights organizations including the NAACP and the League of Women Voters. They called the law one of the most onerous in the country and said it deliberately targeted groups who tend to vote Democratic.

The law required voters to show certain photo IDs, shortened the window for early voting, blocked same-day registration and barred voters from casting ballots outside their precincts.

The groups that sued presented evidence that minorities, young voters and the elderly are more likely than others to use the easy-voting procedures. Irregular work schedules, transportation issues and child-care conflicts can make it hard for them to get to the polls, they said, making it important to have greater flexibility to register and cast ballots.

Fairer, Smoother

The state argued that the law made voting in North Carolina fairer and smoother. Its lawyers said out-of-precinct voting is administratively cumbersome, that same-day registration hinders identity verification and that early voting boosts costs. Voters are better served by shorter early-voting periods with longer hours each day, they said.

Plaintiff groups said in a court filing after the trial that the law resurrected historic practices to prevent blacks from reaching the polls, with tactics including poll taxes and literacy tests that were both common in the region.

It’s part of a “pattern of backlash against rising minority political strength in North Carolina” in recent years, according to the groups that sued.

Until the 2013 Supreme Court decision, the Voting Rights Act allowed federal authorities to veto changes in election laws in 15 states with histories of discrimination, employing that law’s so-called preclearance provision.

Federal Oversight

Since the 1965 law passed, the Justice Department blocked more than 60 voting changes adopted in North Carolina. Most dealt with redistricting, according to the ACLU.

The Supreme Court overturned the preclearance rule, saying that the selection of states for scrutiny was based on out-of-date registration and turnout data. While Congress could restore preclearance, that may be impossible given Washington’s partisan gridlock.

Barack Obama’s election in 2008 heralded a shift in voting patterns in states that had voted Republican in presidential election in recent decades.

North Carolina went Democratic in 2008 for the first time in 32 years. It swung back to the GOP four years later. Florida and Virginia went Democratic in 2008 and 2012.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released earlier this month gave Clinton a 44 percent to 38 percent lead over Trump in North Carolina. The same poll showed McCrory trailing Attorney General Roy Cooper, the Democratic candidate, by four points in his bid for a second term.

Friday’s ruling is less likely to affect he state’s Senate election. Richard Burr, the incumbent Republican seeking another six-year term, has never trailed in a poll against Democratic challenger Deborah Ross.

Cooper opposed the voting law. He had “urged the governor to veto this legislation before he signed it because he knew it would be bad for North Carolina,” Jamal Little, a Cooper campaign spokesman, said Friday in an e-mail.

‘Cure Worse’

In the Wisconsin case, the judge found several provisions of that state’s 2011 election law, including limitations on the time and location for in-person absentee voting, were unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge James Peterson said the purported justifications of these provisions didn’t justify the burdens they imposed.

Wisconsin enacted a series of election reforms after Republicans won the majority in both houses of the state legislature in 2010 and voters elected a Republican governor. The judge didn’t rule on the constitutionality of the state’s voter ID requirement because the U.S. Supreme Court already upheld a similar Indiana voter ID law. He nevertheless said the Wisconsin law is “a cure worse than the disease.”

“The Wisconsin experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities,” Peterson said.