Federal Judges Block N.C.'s Discriminatory Voting-Rights Laws

By Daryl Hannah


North Carolina voters will again be allowed to register and vote on the same day and cast ballots in precincts other than the ones to which they are assigned, thanks to a federal appeals court decision that blocked newly proposed changes to the state’s voting-rights laws.

In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ordered that the state reinstate same-day voter registration and count ballots cast in the wrong precincts, saying: “Whether the number is thirty or thirty-thousand, surely some North Carolina minority voters will be disproportionately adversely affected in the upcoming election.”

In the court’s majority opinion, Judge James Wynn also wrote: “In refusing to consider the elimination of voting mechanisms successful in fostering minority participation, the district court misapprehended and misapplied Section 2. The district court failed to adequately consider North Carolina’s history of voting discrimination. The Supreme Court’s observation that a state’s history should not serve to condemn its future, however, does not absolve states from their future transgressions.”

The court’s decision is the latest development in the on-going tug of war over voting rights that began last summer the day after the Supreme Court suspended Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the year since, North Carolina along with 22 other states passed new restrictive voting laws that eliminated same-day voting and shrank the early-voting window, two mechanisms responsible for the upsurge in Black voters in 2008 and 2012. Voting-rights advocates, with support from outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department, have sued to block all or parts of these laws citing discriminatory elements, but the results have been mixed.

In Ohio, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit just ruled that shrinking the early-voting window from 35 to 28 days and eliminating the last Sunday before Election Daywhich many African-American churches used for “Souls to the Polls”violates both the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause as well as Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act for Ohio. But Ohio immediately filed an emergency petition to the Supreme Court, and on Sept. 29, the Supreme Court voted 54 to allow Ohio to reduce the number of early-voting days.

In Wisconsin, a federal court suspended the state’s restrictive voter-identification law as constitutional and Voting Rights Act challenges worked their way through the courts, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit lifted the stay and allowed Wisconsin to immediately implement the laweven though the trial court noted that up to 300,000 Wisconsin voters lacked the right forms of ID to vote. Just last week, the entire 7th Circuit sitting en banc split 55 over hearing the case, and the next stop is probably the Supreme Court.

And in Texas, the trial to challenge Texas’ new restrictive voter-ID lawwhich says a student ID is not acceptable but a concealed-weapons permit isjust ended and observers expect the judge will rule at any time on whether the law violates the Constitution or the Voting Rights Act. However, there’s no question that if the judge stops Texas’ voter-ID law, the state will appeal, with the case potentially ending up before the Supreme Court.

In North Carolina, an estimated 100,000 voters used same-day registration in 2012, including twice as many Blacks as whites; in addition, roughly 7,500 voters cast their ballots in the wrong precinct but right county in 2012. Since North Carolina’s law was passed, more than 450 voters were disenfranchised by the elimination of these reforms in the May primary, including an army veteran returning from Afghanistan. Judge Wynn himself noted during oral arguments that while he lived next door to a polling station, he was registered to vote at one a few miles away, which was highly confusing for voters.

“The court took an important step to ensure that this election will remain free, fair and accessible to all North Carolina voters,” said Reverend William Barber II, President of the North Carolina branch of the NAACP, another plaintiff in the case.

While the court’s decision is a step forward for voting-rights advocates, it’s not without its challenges. The appeals court affirmed the lower court’s decision to reduce the number of early-voting days, and a hearing is still scheduled for next year on whether other parts of the law, including a requirement to show state-issued identification starting in 2016, violate provisions of the U.S. Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office also confirmed that he will appeal the court’s decision.

The timing of the decision has also complicated matters. Election officials noted that absentee ballots were mailed at the beginning of September. “We are concerned that changes so close to the election may contribute to voter confusion,” said Kim Westbrook Strach, Executive Director of the State Board of Elections. “More than 4 million voter guides have gone to the public with information contrary to today’s decision.”

Early voting in North Carolina begins on Oct. 23.

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