A pile of government pamphlets explaining North Carolina's controversial voting law sits on table at a polling station in Charlotte in March. (Chris Keane/Reuters)

Voting rights activists scored legal victories in key presidential election states Friday, the most important being a federal appeals court ruling that North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature enacted new voting restrictions in 2013 to intentionally blunt the growing clout of African American voters.

The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit was an overwhelming victory for the Justice Department and civil rights groups. Election law experts consider North Carolina's voter law one of the nation's most far-reaching.

In Wisconsin, where one federal judge already had eased restrictions on voter-ID requirements, a second judge found that additional elements of the law passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) were unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson suggested he would strike the entire law if he were not bound by the Supreme Court’s decision that states may use properly written voter-ID laws to guard against voter fraud.

“The evidence in this case casts doubt on the notion that voter ID laws foster integrity and confidence,” Peterson wrote. “The Wisconsin experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities. To put it bluntly, Wisconsin’s strict version of voter ID law is a cure worse than the disease.” The state will appeal both rulings.

President Trump claims that widespread voter fraud occurred in the 2016 election. Does the “integrity of the ballot box” depend on voter ID laws? (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

In the North Carolina case, the 4th Circuit panel agreed with allegations that North Carolina’s omnibus bill selectively chose voter-ID requirements, reduced the number of early-voting days and changed registration procedures in ways meant to harm blacks, who overwhelmingly vote for the Democratic Party.

“The new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision” and “impose cures for problems that did not exist,” Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the panel. “Thus the asserted justifications cannot and do not conceal the State’s true motivation.”

How North Carolina became the epicenter of the voting rights battle

The rulings — along with that of a state court that halted an attempt in Kansas to require proof of citizenship to register — marked important wins for opponents of restrictive voting laws that are being challenged throughout the country ahead of November’s presidential election. Put together, the decisions suggest a growing judicial suspicion of the wave of voting-restriction legislation passed in recent years by ­Republican-led legislatures that said it was necessary to combat voter fraud.

The decisions are likely to prompt the states to ask the Supreme Court for emergency action. But it is far from clear whether the eight justices, evenly divided between conservative and liberal, would get involved. The proximity of an election is often reason for justices to let an appeals court ruling stand.

Federal courts have been examining what are popular and, to some, seemingly common-sense laws — requiring photo ID, for instance — to see whether they favor one group over another.

In North Carolina, for instance, the judges at oral arguments noted that government-issued driver’s licenses are an acceptable form of identification but that ­government-issued public assistance cards — used disproportionately by minorities in the state — are not.

Republican leaders in North Carolina vowed an appeal to the high court. They issued a fiery statement denouncing the ruling “by three partisan Democrats” and suggested it was intended to help the Democratic candidates for president and governor.

North Carolina is considered a key swing state, and African American voters have played an increasing role in making it competitive.

“We can only wonder if the intent is to reopen the door for voter fraud, potentially allowing fellow Democrat politicians like Hillary Clinton and Roy Cooper to steal the election,” said Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore.

The ‘smoking gun’ proving N.C. Republicans tried to disenfranchise blacks

Motz, 73, was nominated by President Bill Clinton. The other judges on the panel were Henry Floyd, nominated to the federal bench by President George W. Bush and elevated to the 4th Circuit by President Obama, and James A. Wynn Jr., a former North Carolina Supreme Court justice nominated to the federal circuit by Obama.

Election law experts are skeptical there is evidence of widespread cheating at the polls in this country. In particular, they find that voting fraud is most often associated with absentee balloting, rather than the kind of impersonation voting that ID laws are meant to combat.

Speaking to reporters in Baton Rouge on Friday, U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch praised the court’s ruling and said the Justice Department will continue to challenge restrictive voting laws. “The ability of Americans to have a voice in the direction of their country — to have a fair and free opportunity to help write the story of this nation — is fundamental to who we are and who we aspire to be,” Lynch said.

Democrats and civil rights groups have also filed suits in Ohio and Arizona.

The North Carolina decision by the Richmond-based court on Friday reverses a 485-page ruling by District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder that upheld the voting measures passed in 2013.

North Carolina lawmakers overhauled the state's election law soon after the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which freed certain states with a history of discrimination from a Voting Rights Act requirement that they receive federal approval before changing voting rules. North Carolina was one of the states.

Legislators quickly eliminated same-day voter registration, rolled back of a week of early voting and put an end to out-of-precinct voting. The appeals court’s ruling reinstates those provisions that civil rights groups, led by the state NAACP, said were used disproportionately by African American voters.

Motz wrote that Schroeder’s comprehensive examination of the legislature’s action “seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees. This failure of perspective led the court to ignore critical facts bearing on legislative intent, including the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina.”

The panel seemed to say it found the equivalent of a smoking gun. “Before enacting that law, the legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices,” Motz wrote. “Upon receipt of the race data, the General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration in five different ways, all of which disproportionately affected African Americans.”

The panel found the law was passed with racially discriminatory intent, violating the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. It said that “intentionally targeting a particular race’s access to the franchise because its members vote for a particular party, in a predictable manner, constitutes discriminatory purpose.”

Motz added: “Our conclusion does not mean, and we do not suggest, that any member of the General Assembly harbored racial hatred or animosity toward any minority group.”

But she said the “totality of the circumstances — North Carolina’s history of voting discrimination; the surge in African American voting; the legislature’s knowledge that African Americans voting translated into support for one party; and the swift elimination of the tools African Americans had used to vote and imposition of a new barrier at the first opportunity to do so — cumulatively and unmistakably reveal that the General Assembly used [the law] to entrench itself.”

“Even if done for partisan ends, that constituted racial discrimination,” Motz wrote.

Such a finding could have meant that the judges could order North Carolina back under federal supervision. But the panel declined to take that step, saying it was enough to block the parts of the law it found offensive.

A recap of oral arguments before the 4th Circuit

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) issue a short statement that, like that of the legislative leaders, said the decision would be appealed, and he repeated claims about the partisan cast of the panel. “Three Democratic judges are undermining the integrity of our elections while also maligning our state,” said McCrory, who is in a tight reelection battle with Cooper, the state’s Democratic attorney general.

Voting rights advocates applauded the ruling and said it sent a strong message to legislatures throughout the country.

North Carolina was one of 17 states set to have more-restrictive voting laws in place for this presidential election than in 2012. Laws in several states, including Wisconsin, Texas and Virginia, also are being challenged in court.

Appeals court says Texas voter-ID law discriminates against minorities

In Wisconsin, a federal judge previously ruled that voters who lack the specific kind of identification the state requires be allowed to vote in November by signing an affidavit as to their identity. In a separate lawsuit, groups asked Peterson to rule on other aspects of the law.

He struck part of the law restricting hours for in-person voting before the election, saying it intentionally discriminates. “The legislature’s immediate goal was to achieve a partisan objective, but the means of achieving that objective was to suppress the reliably Democratic vote of Milwaukee’s African Americans,” Peterson concluded.

In Texas, the entire U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that Texas’s strict voter-ID law discriminates against minority voters, and it ordered a lower court to come up with a fix for the law in time for the November elections.

The appeals court, one of the most conservative in the country, declined to strike down the law completely but said provisions must be made to allow those who lack the specific ID the law requires to be able to cast a vote. The state has decided not to appeal that ruling to the Supreme Court, and a district judge is to rule soon on what accommodations must be made.