The Supreme Court will not allow North Carolina in the November election to use its strict voting law that a lower court found was enacted “with almost surgical precision” to blunt the influence of African American voters.
An evenly divided court said Wednesday that it would not restore the law that a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit found unconstitutional. The court’s short order did not give the justices’ reasoning. It was not a ruling on the merits of the law but instead on an emergency stay request filed by Gov. Pat McCrory (R) to use the law this fall, as the state had in previous elections.
The court’s four conservatives — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. — would have granted most of North Carolina’s request.
But they were unable to find a necessary fifth vote from one of the court’s four liberals.
It was the latest split decision for a court that has been without a ninth member since Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February.
The deadlock indicated that the high court will have trouble agreeing on a host of challenges to restrictive voting measures passed around the country, meaning that appeals courts’ decisions could be the final word on such laws before the election.
The outcome was a major victory for the Obama administration, the Justice Department and a wide group of civil rights organizations that challenged North Carolina’s law, which was one of the country’s most far-reaching.
“Today we achieved another major victory for justice, African Americans, Latinos and all North Carolinians,” said the Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP. “The critical rejection of the state’s position will allow the people of North Carolina to exercise the fundamental right to vote this November without expansive restrictions by racist politicians or racist policies.”
McCrory said the decision prevented his state from employing common-sense protections against voter fraud that are in use by others.
“Four liberal justices blocked North Carolina protections afforded by our sensible voter laws,” the governor said in a statement.
North Carolina is considered to be one of the most competitive states in the coming election, with close contests for president, U.S. Senate and the governorship.
A unanimous panel of the 4th Circuit on July 29 agreed with allegations from the Justice Department and civil rights groups that North Carolina’s 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.”
The state disputed the ruling and had asked the Supreme Court to allow part of the law to be used this November: restoring the photo-ID requirements, reducing the number of early-voting days from 17 to 10 and ending the state’s practice of preregistering teenagers to vote so that they are enrolled when they turn 18.
The lower court’s decision “prohibits North Carolina from enforcing one voting measure that this Court has already held States may constitutionally enforce [voter ID], and compels North Carolina to retain other voting measures that few States have,” the state said in its request to the high court.
“And it does so on the theory that the State’s bare decision to enact a voter-ID law, and to curtail or eliminate permissive practices that few States offer, is compelling evidence of purposeful racial discrimination,” it said.
The civil rights coalition that had successfully challenged the law asked the court to leave the 4th Circuit’s decision in place.
“It would be a miscarriage of justice and inconsistent with this court’s precedents to permit North Carolina’s discriminatory voting law to remain in force through the 2016 election,” they said in a brief.
North Carolina lawmakers overhauled the state’s election law in 2013, soon after the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder. That ruling 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 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.
After a trial, U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder upheld the law in a 485-page ruling.
But 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.”
For instance, the law allowed the use of photo IDs, such as driver’s licenses and passports, held disproportionately by whites, but not photo IDs issued by colleges or state assistance programs, which blacks were more likely to possess.