A federal appeals court on Tuesday questioned whether it has time before the November presidential contest to overhaul North Carolina voting rules that civil rights groups say discriminate against minority voters.
Opponents of the law, including the Obama administration, want the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit to reverse a ruling this spring that upheld the state’s law eliminating same-day voter registration, rolling back of a week of early voting and ending out-of-precinct voting.
The law also requires voters to produce a government-issued identification card before casting ballots.
The three-judge panel on Tuesday seemed sympathetic to opponents. Judge Diana Gribbon Motz pressed attorneys on both sides about how quickly the court would have to act to put changes in place before the election.
Same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct voting are currently in effect because of an earlier order from the same panel of judges. The court must also decide whether photo identification will be required and whether North Carolina will have to reinstate an additional week of early voting.
“The sooner you rule the better,” said attorney Allison J. Riggs, of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, who argued for the League of Women Voters. “The infrastructure is in place. We’re ready to go.”
North Carolina’s legislature passed new voting rules in 2013 in the weeks after the Supreme Court-- in a 5-to-4 vote-- got rid of a requirement that certain states with a history of discrimination receive pre-approval before changing election laws. The North Carolina measure was approved by the state’s Republican-led Senate with every African-American senator voting against it.
On Tuesday, Judges James A. Wynn, Jr. and Henry F. Floyd remarked on the timing and on comments from a state senator who said lawmakers were no longer restrained by the “legal headache” of the Voting Rights Act.
The timing “looks pretty bad to me,” Floyd said, prompting murmurs of agreement from the courtroom packed with opponents of the law, some of whom traveled from North Carolina to the Richmond-based appeals court to hear the arguments.
“Your honor, it was not a nefarious thing,” responded Thomas A. Farr, the lead lawyer representing North Carolina.
A lower court judge, Farr noted, “concluded there was no intentional discrimination.”
Wynn later asked Farr to explain why the law does not permit voters to rely on public assistance cards, disproportionately used by minorities in the state, as one of the acceptable forms of identification under law.
North Carolina is one of 17 states that will have more restrictive voting laws in place for this presidential election than they had for the prior one. Laws in several states, including Texas, Wisconsin and Virginia, also are being challenged in court.
Justice Department attorney Anna Baldwin told the court Tuesday that as a result of North Carolina’s rules, thousands of voters in 2014 were “shut out of the political process. We’ve proven outright denial.”
A lower court judge had disagreed, upholding the state’s law in an April ruling and rejecting the argument that large numbers of minority voters would be disenfranchised.
Gov. Pat McCrory (R) has said the measure would help prevent voter fraud and that the identification requirement is no different than what is needed to board an airplane.
In court filings, the Obama administration said the law was passed to “preserve partisan political control” and to minimize voting by black residents. African-American voters registered and voted in record numbers in North Carolina in 2008 and 2012 when President Obama was on the ballot.
“Just at a time when the population was registering and participating at the same levels as white voters, the legislature swooped in and cut this back,” said Dale Ho, director of the Voting Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups challenging the law.
Under the law, voters must present one of these government-issued IDs: a North Carolina driver’s license, a special non-operator’s ID, a U.S. passport, a military ID, a veteran’s ID, a tribal ID from a federally or state recognized tribe, or in certain cases, a driver’s license or non-operator ID issued by another state.
A week before the law was scheduled to be tested at a trial over the new requirements, lawmakers amended the measure to allow voters to cast ballots without an ID if they submit affidavits attesting to “a reasonable impediment,” including a lack of a birth certificate or transportation.
The law is being challenged under a section of the Voting Rights Act that prohibits laws that discriminate against minorities and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
The Justice Department has also sued Texas, which has the most stringent voter-identification law in the country and that election experts also say could affect turnout for minority and young voters.
A federal judge in one of two Wisconsin cases is expected to rule by the end of July on that state’s strict voter-ID law. Democrats in Virginia have appealed a court ruling upholding its state requirement that voters bring an ID to the polls.
Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.