On Wednesday, a divided Supreme Court rejected Gov. Pat McCrory's request to reinstate parts of a North Carolina voter ID law. The measures, which were originally struck down by the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals in July, resemble similar legal debates around the country over voter ID laws that some see as common sense, while others criticize them as racially tinged tactics that could, in effect, keep many poor and minority voters from the polls.
"We're thrilled. Elections in North Carolina this fall are going to be conducted under a fair and nondiscriminatory election law scheme," Allison Riggs, a lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, one of the groups that originally challenged North Carolina's requirements, told Reuters.
The law, which was approved by legislators in 2013, required voters to show one of several qualifying photo IDs, and shortened the early in-person voting period from 17 days to just 10. During the presidential election of 2012, more than half the state's voters submitted their ballot during the early voting period.
The Supreme Court was divided 4 to 4 on most of the challenged provisions, rejecting the governor's and other officials' emergency request to delay implementing the lower court's decision while the state drafted an appeal. The 4th Circuit ruling found that the challenged ID requirements "target African Americans with almost surgical precision." ID rules disproportionately affect poor and minority voters, critics argue, since they are less likely to have government issued photo IDs.
In recent months, voter ID laws have come under increasing scrutiny around the country: In Kansas, a Shawnee County judge blocked Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach's attempt to keep 17,000 voters from casting ballots because they didn’t have US citizenship proof when they registered to vote. Federal judges have struck down parts of new voter ID laws in Wisconsin and Texas as well. But for North Carolina Democrats, the issue has come to a head at a critical time: They worry that decreased vote access could cause the state to swing to the right in the November election.
"The North Carolina race is one that may well be close enough to be affected by the voter ID and especially the early voting changes," Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll in Milwaukee, told The Christian Science Monitor in July. "North Carolina has a close partisan balance and a large African-American population so even small changes in turnout could affect the outcome."
But to North Carolina Republicans, on the other hand, liberal efforts to dismantle the law also look like election-year political maneuvering. Voter ID laws are meant to stop fraudulent voters, they say, and nobody else.
In many states, however, cases of in-person voter fraud are rare: In Texas, for example, you are more likely to be struck by lightening than find in-person voter fraud. A national study led by researcher Justin Levitt found only 31 credible cases of voter impersonation out of 1 billion votes cast in the United States, the Monitor reported in April.
At the same time, Democrats have struggled to directly link stricter identification requirements to decreased voter turnout. In North Carolina, minority turnout actually increased in 2014 – a year after the new law was passed.
Some experts hope that legislators can meet in the middle on the partisan issue. Less-strict voter ID laws, they say, could deter fraud without deterring black and Hispanic voters.
"If you've got a rule that you have to show non-photo ID or sign an affidavit verifying ID if you don't have it, that's not likely to exclude many voters," Dan Tokaji, a professor at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law, told the Monitor in August.
This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.