Federal appellate judges on Friday struck down a 2013 law limiting voting options and requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls, declaring in an unsparing opinion that the restrictions “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
The three-judge panel of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the law was adopted with “discriminatory intent” despite lawmakers’ claims that the ID provision and other changes were designed to prevent voter fraud.
The ruling — which could have implications for voting laws in other states and possibly for the outcome of close races in the swing state of North Carolina — sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder, who in April issued a 485-page decision dismissing all claims in the legal challenge.
“In holding that the legislature did not enact the challenged provisions with discriminatory intent, the court seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees,” the ruling states. “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.”
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The ruling prohibits North Carolina from requiring photo identification from voters in future elections, including the November 2016 general election. It restores a week of early voting and preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds, and ensures that same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting will remain in effect.
State Board of Elections officials immediately began to pull back advertising campaigns that had been designed to air on TV, radio and other media in the coming months to educate North Carolina voters about what they would need to cast ballots in the coming election.
Challengers of the elections law overhaul shepherded through the Republican-led General Assembly in 2013 and signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory quickly lauded the ruling. Republican leaders criticized the ruling, noting that IDs are required to board airplanes, enter federal courthouses, cash checks and more. They announced their plans to appeal.
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who leads the U.S. Justice Department that was a party in the lawsuit challenging the law, praised the appellate panel for striking down a law “that the court described in its ruling as ‘one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history.’ ” Lynch described the law as one that placed “barriers between citizens and the ballot box.”
“And it sent a message that contradicted some of the most basic principles of our democracy,” Lynch said in her statement. “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. Going forward, the Department of Justice will continue our work to protect that sacred right for all.”
Lynch and many others echoed phrases from several lines in the 83-page ruling that bats back contentions by advocates of the law who claimed IDs were needed at the polls to prevent voter fraud.
“Although the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision, they constitute inapt remedies for the problems assertedly justifying them and, in fact, impose cures for problems that did not exist,” the 4th Circuit judges wrote.
“This ruling is a stinging rebuke of the state’s attempt to undermine African-American voter participation, which had surged over the last decade,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “It is a major victory for North Carolina voters and for voting rights.”
N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County, and state House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican from Cleveland County, issued a joint statement questioning the motives of the three-judge panel — Judge Diana Motz, a Bill Clinton appointee, Judge James A. Wynn Jr., a Barack Obama appointee, and Judge Henry F. Floyd, an Obama appointee to the 4th circuit bench but a George W. Bush appointee to the U.S. District bench.
“Since today’s decision by three partisan Democrats ignores legal precedent, ignores the fact that other federal courts have used North Carolina’s law as a model, and ignores the fact that a majority of other states have similar protections in place, 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. We will obviously be appealing this politically-motivated decision to the Supreme Court,” Berger and Moore said.
“The voter ID law ensures any North Carolina citizen who wants to vote will have that opportunity,” Berger and Moore contended. They pointed to provisions in state law that allow someone without ID to obtain a Division of Motor Vehicles card at no cost as well as offering people who have been unable to obtain one of the six acceptable forms of ID to cast a provisional ballot.
McCrory, in his statement, accused “three Democratic judges” of “undermining the integrity of our elections while also maligning our state.”
Other voter ID rulings
North Carolina’s law is the third with an ID provision courts have rejected in the past two weeks.
A federal district judge found Wisconsin’s ID law too restrictive. The full 5th U.S. Circuit appeals court found that Texas’s voter ID law violated the Voting Rights Act by making it more difficult for minorities to vote and opened the door for putting the state under federal supervision again.
“We applaud the appeals court for recognizing the discriminatory intent behind the monster voter suppression law,” Bob Hall, director of Democracy NC, a voting rights organization, said in a statement about the N.C. case. “The ruling makes clear that the North Carolina General Assembly cherry-picked the law to suppress African American and young voters because of the 2008 election. Today’s ruling begins to right that wrong.”
In North Carolina, the state could ask the full bench of the 4th Circuit to review the ruling. But attorneys and others speculate that even if the full court agreed to review the case, the 2013 election-law changes would not be restored before the November elections.
“Because of this ruling, North Carolinians will now be able to register and vote free of the obstacles created by the Legislature in 2013,” said Southern Coalition for Social Justice senior attorney Allison Riggs.
Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, questioned whether the law had been defended well. Though N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office represented lawmakers in the case, Republican leaders also hired private attorneys.
“This is an effort to overthrow the will of the people on voter ID and ballot security, and it is led by the Democrats and, we believe, by Roy Cooper, who did a really lackluster job of defending voter ID while at the same time publicly criticizing it,” Woodhouse said Friday afternoon.
But Cooper’s campaign noted that Cooper, the Democrat running for governor, had advised McCrory in 2013 to veto the bill.
North Carolinians were not the only ones commenting on the decision Friday. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate for president, tweeted her support for the ruling.
The Rev. William J. Barber II, fresh off of addressing the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, admonished lawmakers for changing North Carolina’s election laws that had made the state a “model for the nation in encouraging people to vote.”
Barber is president of the state NAACP that participated in the legal challenge, and the architect of the Moral Monday movement that has protested the voter ID law and other legislation from the Republican-controlled legislature and governor’s office.
“Today the 4th Circuit’s decision gives North Carolinians back an electoral system that allows the people of North Carolina to vote freely this fall,” Barber said in a statement.
In 2015, on the eve of the federal trial over the 2013 law, the legislature softened the ID requirement by adding a provison that allowed voters without acceptable ID to cast a provisional ballot if they could show a “reasonable impediment” to obtaining an ID.
Though Motz differed from Wynn and Floyd on whether the time was right to weigh the “reasonable impediment” option, Wynn wrote for the majority: “Nothing in this record shows that the reasonable impediment exception ensures that the photo ID law no longer imposes any lingering burden on African American voters.”
That could be significant for Texas and Wisconsin, where such a softening of the ID requirement was suggested, too, lawyers said.
“This is a very big win for voting rights plaintiffs and the DOJ,” said Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California-Irvine who writes about law and politics on his electionlawblog.org.