U.S. Supreme Court Upholds North Carolina's Limits on Voting

by | October 9, 2014

By Anne Blythe

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling on Wednesday that means voters in North Carolina will not be able to vote out of their precincts on Nov. 4 nor register to vote and cast ballots on the same day.

The ruling blocked a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision Oct. 1 that reinstated same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct voting for the coming election.

The justices offered no insight into their 7-2 ruling to uphold a district court ruling to let the November election proceed under the 2013 rewrite of the state's elections laws.

Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented and issued an opinion outlining their reasons.

They said they had no reason to disagree with the 4th Circuit's reasoning that elimination of same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting would limit opportunities for black voters to cast ballots.

Ginsburg said the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had "worked to safeguard long-obstructed access to the ballot by African-Americans" by blocking such election-law changes in the South. But the court voided that "pre-clearance rule" last year in a 5-4 decision.

North Carolina voting laws were changed weeks after the Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act.

Voters will go to the polls Nov. 4 to decide key statewide races and local contests. The U.S. Senate race between incumbent U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, and N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican, has drawn national interest. Libertarian Sean Haugh is also seeking the seat.

The NAACP and others who have sued the state asking for the 2013 election overhaul to be declared unconstitutional had hoped old laws would govern the general election in November while their lawsuits make their way through the courts.

The challengers contend the changes made in 2013 discriminate against African-Americans, Latinos and voters younger than 25.

Challenges still continue

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling and others made in the case are just steps in a protracted legal process.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder has set a trial for July 2015 to hear arguments for and against constitutional questions raised by the challengers.

Schroeder held hearings this past July to determine what parts of the 2013 law, if any, would apply to the November elections. In August, Schroeder ruled that the challengers had not shown that any voters would suffer "irreparable harm" if the elections were governed by the 2013 law.

Schroeder also rejected a request from attorneys representing the state lawmakers who adopted the changes to dismiss the challenge outright.

The U.S. Supreme Court offered little explanation for its ruling on Wednesday to uphold Schroeder's ruling and reject the 4th Circuit order to reinstate same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting.

Early last week, the country's highest court blocked a federal appeals court ruling that would have restored seven days of early voting in Ohio.

Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor, said last week that he expected the justices to issue a similar ruling in the North Carolina case, in part, to avoid setting off a chain of changes to voting procedures so close to the election.

Tobias said Wednesday that the high court's ruling offered little insight into any ultimate decisions in the legal challenges.

NAACP leader vows vigilance

The Rev. William J. Barber II, head of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, was disappointed with the Supreme Court decision.

"Tens of thousands of North Carolina voters, especially African-American voters, have relied on same-day registration, as well as the counting of ballots that were cast out of precinct, for years," Barber said in a statement. "As the appeals court correctly concluded, eliminating these measures will cause irreparable harm of denying citizens their right to vote in the November election -- a right that, once lost, can never be restored."

Despite the Supreme Court ruling, Barber said, the NAACP and other organizations plan to make "sure that, county by county, as many votes as possible are counted despite the barriers posed by the Supreme Court's ruling."

The U.S. justices weighed in on the November election procedures after Gov. Pat McCrory and legislative leaders appealed the 4th Circuit ruling.

Attorneys for the lawmakers asked that Schroeder's August decision be upheld, contending that any changes to the election process so close to November would create confusion for voters and elections administrators.

Among the election law changes adopted in 2013 is a provision that will require voters to show a state-approved ID at the polls starting in 2016.

The law also shortens the number of days in the early voting period. Early voting begins this month on Oct. 23 and extends to 1 p.m. on Nov. 1.

The law also allows poll observers and challengers in each precinct and prohibits polls from staying open an extra hour to accommodate large crowds from extraordinary circumstances.

GOP leaders applaud ruling

Republicans who shepherded the changes through the General Assembly to the governor, who signed the bill into law in August 2013, say the measures are designed to prevent voter fraud.

Challengers point out that there have been few cases of fraud.

Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, issued a statement on Wednesday.

"Thousands of North Carolinians will be left out of the upcoming election," Ho said. "More than 20,000 North Carolina voters used same-day registration in the last midterm election. While this order is not a final ruling on the merits, it does allow a law that undermines voter participation to be in effect as this case makes its way through the courts."

Phil Berger, N.C. Senate president pro tem, and Tillis issued a joint statement late Wednesday lauding the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

"Today, in bipartisan fashion, our nation's highest court affirmed North Carolina's election reform law by allowing it to move forward for next month's election," the legislative leaders said in their statement. "The court's ruling restores the clarity and certainty to the election process that has been in place since the May primary and was disrupted at the eleventh hour. These commonsense reforms will help support voter integrity in North Carolina while protecting every citizen's constitutional right to vote."

McCrory also praised the decision.

"I am pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court has ensured this popular and common sense bill will apply to the upcoming election," McCrory said in a statement. "We respect the legal process and thank the Supreme Court justices for protecting the integrity of our elections."

(c)2014 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)