Election Law

Divided appellate court strikes part of North Carolina's controversial voting law

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An appellate court has thrown out part of North Carolina’s controversial voting law.

According to the Charlotte Observer, a divided three judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit kept most of the provisions in the state’s electoral law intact, but issued a temporary order allowing same-day registration and provisional ballots in the upcoming November elections. The two practices restored by the majority on the panel had both been thrown out when the Republican-controlled legislature passed new voting laws last year.

Provisions cutting the early voting period by one week and ending pre-registration programs for teenagers were upheld, while a challenge to the state’s voter ID requirement is scheduled to go to trial next year. “With respect to these provisions,” said the opinion, “we conclude that, although plaintiffs may ultimately succeed at trial, they have not met their burden of satisfying all elements necessary for a preliminary injunction.”

Judge James Wynn, who wrote the majority opinion (PDF), held that U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder “got the law plainly wrong” when he ruled last month that groups challenging the law had not proven that the new rules would cause “irreparable harm” to some voters in the upcoming election. Wynn also turned aside arguments that courts could not change electoral laws this close to the election. Judge Diana Motz dissented, writing that “irreparable harm” alone was insufficient justification to change the laws.

State Republicans vowed to keep fighting. One of the bill’s original sponsors, Thom Tillis, Speaker of the House for the North Carolina House of Representatives and candidate for U.S. Senate in November, promised a quick appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, while Governor Pat McCrory, who signed the bill into law, said he would order the state’s attorneys to appeal. Meanwhile, two of the groups challenging the voting law, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, expressed satisfaction with the decision. “This is a victory for voters in the state of North Carolina,” said Southern Coalition for Social Justice staff attorney Allison Riggs in a statement. “The court has rebuked attempts to undermine voter participation.”

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said that he expects the Supreme Court to side with the Republicans and pointed to a similar ruling earlier this week by the high court that stopped an appeals court from restoring one week of early voting and reinstituting same-day registration in Ohio. “The battle lines have already been drawn, I’m afraid. You have the five Republicans on the Supreme Court voting against the four Democrats,” Tobias said to the Observer. “I’m sorry to sound so cynical, but this seems so blatantly political. All these measures passed by Republican legislatures to help Republican candidates. So what does the Supreme Court do?”

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