Politics & Government

Supreme Court won’t rescue NC voter ID law

Voters wait in line for early voting at the Lake Lynn Community Center in Raleigh, N.C. Wednesday, October 26, 2016.
Voters wait in line for early voting at the Lake Lynn Community Center in Raleigh, N.C. Wednesday, October 26, 2016. cliddy@newsobserver.com

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to consider reinstating North Carolina’s 2013 elections law which includes a voter ID requirement and other restrictions on voting.

The ruling gave few details about why the court left a lower-court decision in place that struck down the restrictions, stating they “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

In the Monday ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts outlined the background of the case and noted that the court’s decision not to hear the appeal should not be seen as sending a larger message about “the merits of the case.”

The law called for voters to show specific kinds of photo identification and prohibited voters from registering to vote and casting ballots on the same day. It sought to eliminate out-of-precinct voting as well as preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds who would turn 18 by Election Day. And it eliminated a week of early voting.

The Republican-controlled legislature passed the changes in 2013 and former Gov. Pat McCrory signed them into law. A ruling last summer by a three-judge panel on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the law ahead of the November 2016 general election.

The state appealed to the Supreme Court. But after Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein, both Democrats, took office in January, they sought to withdraw the state’s appeal. The justices faced competing procedural arguments from the two Democrats and the Republican leaders of the legislature.

The news from the high court was greeted with resounding approval by those who challenged the law.

NAACP members and others gathered for a news conference in Raleigh about the plans of the Rev. William J. Barber II to step down as the organization’s president with five months left in his term, broke into spontaneuous chants of “Forward together, not one step back” as the ruling was announced. Many of the people who rose in standing ovation were part of the Moral Monday movement which protested the election law changes. The NAACP filed the lawsuit along with voters.

“This is a great victory for the N.C. NAACP and the people of North Carolina, vindicating the nearly four-year fight for fair access to the ballot in the state,” said Caitlin Swain, one of the attorneys who represented the challengers. “The 4th Circuit’s powerful determination that the General Assembly acted with racially discriminatory intent remains the law of the land.”

Republican Party leaders and legislators highlighted Roberts’ comment that the court was not ruling on the merits of the case.

“Republicans will continue to fight for common sense and constitutional voter ID measures, similar to what many other states already have,” NC GOP Chairman Robin Hayes said. “While Gov. Cooper and Attorney General Stein have stymied voter ID for now, they will ultimately lose in their efforts to block North Carolina citizens from having these protections.”

In a joint statement posted on N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore’s Facebook page, the Republican from Kings Mountain, and Phil Berger of Eden, leader of the state Senate, said that “all North Carolinians can rest assured that Republican legislators will continue fighting to protect the integrity of our elections by implementing the commonsense requirement to show a photo ID when we vote.”

Any such efforts could pit the legislative leaders against the governor in another power struggle.

“We need to be making it easier to vote, not harder – and the Court found this law sought to discriminate against African-American voters with ‘surgical precision,’” Cooper said. “I will continue to work to protect the right of every legal, registered North Carolinian to participate in our democratic process.

This breaking news story will be updated.