Federal appeals court blocks some changes to N.C. voting laws

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and out-of-precinct voting in North Carolina’s upcoming election after the Republican-led N.C. General Assembly repealed those provisions.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.

Wednesday’s appeals court ruling on the North Carolina voting law can be read in its entirety here.

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N.C. voter rolls grew by 1.5 million over past decade

The number of registered voters in North Carolina has grown by nearly 1.5 million over the past 10 years – a 30 percent increase.

According to the State Board of Elections, there are currently 6.5 million registered voters in the state, reflecting about 90 percent of all eligible North Carolinians.

The breakdown of voters along party lines is 42 percent Democratic, 31 percent Republican, 27 percent unaffiliated and .4 percent Libertarian. Women outnumber men on the voter rolls, with a 54 percent share of registration numbers.

The report from the elections board comes as the Oct. 10 voter registration deadline nears. Meeting that deadline has taken on a new sense of urgency as same-day voter registration will not be an option during the early voting period this year.

“Registration is a vital first step towards broader participation in our civic community,” said Kim Westbrook Strach, executive director of the State Board of Elections. “We applaud the work of groups dedicated to public outreach ahead of the October 10 registration deadline.”

The State Board of Elections reports that various groups may have wrongly informed voters that they must re-register due to a supposed database problem.  Election officials say that no such database error occurred and that only voters who have moved to a new county must re-register.

Voters can check their registration status or download a voter registration form through the State Board of Elections website.

Here is a nice graphical breakdown of voter registration numbers in North Carolina, provided by the State Board of Elections:

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McCrory names Winston-Salem lawyer to N.C. Appeals Court

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory announced the latest in a series of judicial appointments on Monday, naming Winston-Salem lawyer Richard Dietz to an upcoming vacancy on the N.C. Court of Appeals.

Dietz will take the place of current Appeals Court Judge Bob Hunter, who has been appointed to fill the N.C. Supreme Court seat of Justice Mark Martin, who in turn was tapped by McCrory to take the place of retiring Chief Justice Sarah Parker.

Dietz will join the Appeals Court after Hunter moves to the Supreme Court on Sept. 6.

“Richard Dietz has an esteemed legal record and an extensive background in appellate practice,” McCrory said. “His experience, service on the North Carolina Courts Commission and involvement in his community will make him a valuable addition to the Court of Appeals.”

Dietz is a partner in the Winston-Salem office of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP and a member of the firm’s Appellate and Supreme Court team. He is vice chair of the Appellate Practice Section of the N.C. Bar Association and is a member of the Bar Association’s Appellate Rules Committee.

Earlier this year, McCrory appointed Dietz to the N.C. Courts Commission, which studies the state’s courts system and recommends improvements.

Dietz graduated first in his class from Wake Forest University School of Law.  He was a law clerk for Judge Samuel Wilson on the U.S. District Court in Virginia and Judge Emory Widener on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.  He then worked as a research fellow in comparative and international law at Kyushu University in Japan before returning to the U.S. to begin his career as an appellate attorney.

The appointment of Dietz continues a busy month of judicial appointments for the McCrory administration, which includes the naming of Lisa Bell to take the place of retired Court of Appeals Judge John Martin.

Established in 1967, the Court of Appeals is North Carolina’s intermediate appellate court, with its 15 judges hearing cases in panels of three.

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McCrory makes appointment to N.C. Appeals Court

(Photo: Judge Lisa Bell – Facebook)

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory on Friday announced his appointment of Judge Lisa Bell to the N.C. Court of Appeals.

Bell, who currently serves as a special Superior Court judge, will temporarily take the place of Appeals Court Judge John Martin, who retired from the bench on Aug. 1.

She will serve on the Court of Appeals until the end of this year, after which the winner of a 19-candidate special election held this fall will take the seat for a new eight-year term.

“Judge Bell has been a tremendous asset to our state’s judiciary, first as a District Court judge and now as a special Superior Court judge,” McCrory said. “Her dedication, wisdom and experience will serve our state well and I look forward to her continued service on the Court of Appeals.”

Prior to her appointment as a special Superior Court judge by McCrory in May of 2013, Bell served as chief District Court judge for Mecklenburg County from 2009 to 2013.

First elected a District Court judge in 1998, she was re-elected in 2002, 2006 and 2010. Previously, Bell was in private practice as a family lawyer and served as an attorney advocate with the Children’s Law Center.

Bell graduated from Wake Forest University with a bachelor of arts in economics.  She earned her law degree from the University of North Carolina.

She is running unopposed for the Superior Court this November.

Established in 1967, the Court of Appeals is North Carolina’s intermediate appellate court, with its 15 judges hearing cases in panels of three.

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McCrory makes appointment to N.C. Supreme Court

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory on Wednesday announced that he will appoint current N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Bob Hunter to the state Supreme Court.

Effective Sept. 6, Hunter will fill the seat being vacated by Justice Mark Martin, who in turn is taking the place of retiring Chief Justice Sarah Parker at the end of this month.

Hunter is running this fall for a full eight-year term in that Supreme Court seat against N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Sam Ervin IV.

“As a lawyer who practiced for 35 years and as a current judge on the North Carolina Court of Appeals, Judge Hunter has the experience and integrity needed to serve on North Carolina’s Supreme Court,” McCrory said. “I am confident that Judge Hunter will continue to serve our state to the best of his legal abilities and with the highest of ethical standards.”

A member of the N.C. Court of Appeals since 2008, Hunter practiced law for 35 years in Greensboro.

He has served as chairman of the State Board of Elections and deputy attorney general. He graduated with a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1969 and with a J.D. from the UNC School of Law in 1973.

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