Supreme Court reinstates controversial North Carolina voting measures

The US Supreme Court’s order comes less than a month before the midterm elections, with North Carolina in the midst of a tight Senate race. Last week, an appeals court panel had blocked two of the voting measures.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
The US Supreme Court building is seen in Washington, D.C., Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.

The US Supreme Court has issued a stay to block an appeals court decision that reinstated same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct provisional voting in North Carolina in advance of next month’s midterm elections.

The high court took the action in a one-paragraph order issued late Wednesday. Two justices dissented.

The action puts on hold a decision last week by a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., that reversed a portion of an earlier ruling by a federal judge upholding North Carolina’s new voter ID and registration law.

Critics say the new law, backed by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature, is designed to undercut voter turnout among African-American, elderly, and young voters.

Supporters say it imposes modest requirements that help uphold the integrity of elections.

The Supreme Court’s order comes less than a month before the midterm elections, and in North Carolina, Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan is in a close race against Republican challenger Thom Tillis, speaker of the state’s House. The outcome of the contest could tip the balance of power for control of the US Senate to either the Democrats or Republicans.

The Supreme Court did not say why it decided to stay the appeals court’s decision. But some analysts have noted that the high court has expressed concern about lower court rulings that change the rules of voting close to an election day.

The order stayed the appeals court’s decision pending the filing of a petition to the Supreme Court to hear the case. It said that if the petition is denied, the stay would terminate automatically.

In a dissent, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor said they would deny the requested stay.

Justice Ginsburg said the new voting law in North Carolina was enacted after the high court’s decision last term eliminating the preclearance requirement within the Voting Rights Act. Had North Carolina been required to submit its new law to the Justice Department for preclearance, she said, none of the seven disputed provisions probably would have survived.

“The Court of Appeals determined that at least two of the measures – elimination of same-day registration and termination of out-of-precinct voting – risked significantly reducing opportunities for black voters to exercise the franchise in violation of ... the Voting Rights Act,” Ginsburg wrote. “I would not displace that record-based reasoned judgment.”

Instead, she said, she would keep the Fourth Circuit’s decision in place pending full adjudication of the case.

The new North Carolina law reduces early voting to 10 days, eliminates preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds who won’t be 18 by Election Day, and calls for the soft rollout of a voter ID requirement by 2016. It provides for expansion of voter challenges and eliminates the discretion of county election boards to keep the polls open for an additional hour on Election Day in extraordinary circumstances. The law also eliminates same-day registration and prohibits counting ballots cast in the wrong precinct.

The Fourth Circuit panel agreed with the federal judge that most of the provisions should be allowed to remain in full effect for the November midterm elections. But the appeals court ruled that two of the changes – eliminating same-day registration and barring out-of-precinct voting – violate the Voting Rights Act.

“To us, when viewed in the context of relevant ‘social and historical conditions’ in North Carolina, this looks precisely like a textbook example of [a violation of the Voting Rights Act],” the appeals court said.

In a statement issued following the Supreme Court’s order, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) said he was grateful the high court stepped into the controversy.

“I am pleased that the US Supreme Court has ensured this popular and common sense bill will apply to the upcoming election,” he said. “We respect the legal process and thank the Supreme Court justices for protecting the integrity of our elections.”

Civil rights and voting rights groups challenging the North Carolina law expressed disappointment with the high court’s order.

“Thousands of North Carolinians will be left out of the upcoming election,” Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement.

“More than 20,000 North Carolina voters used same-day registration in the last midterm election,” he said. “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.”

Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, said the two disputed measures were “vital tools for expanding the franchise.”

“Voters of color, who used these measures at significantly higher rates than white voters, will face higher barriers to the ballot box this November,” she said.

The case is North Carolina v. League of Women Voters of North Carolina (14A358).

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