The federal 4th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday handed down a 2-1 decision that would allow same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct voting in North Carolina’s upcoming election after the Republican-led N.C. General Assembly repealed those provisions.
The ruling leaves in place cuts to early voting enacted through a law passed by the legislature in 2013. A voter ID requirement, perhaps that law’s highest profile component, was not impacted by the ruling on Wednesday as that provision does not go into effect until 2016.
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP lawmakers say they will appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The appeals court decision comes five weeks before Election Day and reverses a federal district court ruling from August that would have allowed the controversial voting changes to remain in place until a full trial is held in 2015.
Judge James Wynn, a former member of the N.C. Supreme Court who was appointed to the federal bench by President Barack Obama in 2010, wrote the majority decision for the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In his decision, Wynn noted that in the summer of 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court “lifted certain Voting Rights Act restrictions that had long prevented jurisdictions like North Carolina from passing laws that would deny minorities equal access. The very next day, North Carolina began pursuing sweeping voting reform—House Bill 589—which is at the heart of this appeal.”
Wynn pointed out that same-day registration, which had allowed North Carolinians to register to vote during the early voting period, was disproportionately used by African-American voters. In 2012, 13 percent of black voters utilized same-day registration, compared to 7 percent of white voters.
The decision also agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that banning out-of-precinct voting would unfairly impact black voters.
While the decision blocked the repeal of same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting, it stopped short of mandating that the state restore a lost week of early voting. Wynn noted that such action would require county boards of elections to begin the early voting period in just two weeks.
“We conclude that this very tight timeframe represents a burden not only on the state, but also on the county boards of elections,” Wynn wrote.
Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, which was a plaintiff in the case, praised the decision.
“The evidence clearly showed that under North Carolina’s voter suppression law, African-Americans would have faced higher barriers to the ballot this November, and the court took an important step to ensure that this election will remain free, fair and accessible to all North Carolina voters,” Barber said. “Our fight is not yet over, though. We will charge ahead until this law is permanently overturned in the full trial next summer.”
House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, the top two leaders in the Republican-led legislature that passed the voting law in question, claimed the ruling as a partial victory for upholding “the lion’s share of commonsense reforms that bring North Carolina in line with a majority of other states.”
“However, we share the concern of Judge Diana Gribbon Motz – the panel’s senior judge – that rewriting reasonable rules requiring people to vote in their own precinct and register in advance will strain our voting system, confuse voters and disrupt our general election that is only a month away,” Berger and Tillis wrote in a press release.
The two legislative leaders vowed to “appeal this decision as quickly as possible to the Supreme Court.”
Judge Motz, a Clinton appointee, wrote in her dissenting opinion that while she had reservations regarding the district court’s ruling that would have allowed the voting changes to remain in effect, she was concerned about reversing course so close to the election.
“Election day is less than five weeks away, and other deadlines loom even closer. In fact, for the many North Carolina voters that have already submitted absentee ballots, this election is already underway,” Motz wrote. “In addition to the burden it places on the state, an about-face at this juncture runs the very real risk of confusing voters who will receive incorrect and conflicting information about when and how they can register and cast their ballots.”
That sentiment was echoed by Kim Westbrook Strach, executive director of the State Board of Elections.
“We are concerned that changes so close to the election may contribute to voter confusion,” Strach said. “More than 4 million voter guides have gone to the public with information contrary to today’s decision.”
Election officials encouraged voters to stay informed of possible further developments. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is expected as soon as Thursday.
Earlier this week, a divided U.S. Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling that would have blocked a controversial Ohio law reducing that state’s early voting period.