Politics & Government

Court ruling on voter ID bill could affect North Carolina races

Donovan Cruz (left) and Jeanne Marshall focused on their ballots as they voted in March at the CPCC Facilities Services building.
Donovan Cruz (left) and Jeanne Marshall focused on their ballots as they voted in March at the CPCC Facilities Services building. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Friday’s ruling by a federal appeals court that struck down North Carolina’s Republican-sponsored election law could play to Democrats’ advantage this fall, potentially making a difference in close state contests and even the race for the White House.

A panel of judges on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the state’s sweeping 2013 election law unconstitutional. They said GOP lawmakers enacted the measure “with discriminatory intent” to target African-American voters.

“If we are expecting a competitive election this November, Democrats have to be pleased with this ruling,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College.

Polls show close races in North Carolina’s U.S. Senate and gubernatorial contests. They also show a tight presidential race in one of the nation’s key battlegrounds.

With their decision, the appeals court judges threw out the requirement for voters to have a photo ID. They also preserved same-day registration and out-of-precinct provisional voting, while extending early voting by a week.

Early voting now starts on Oct. 20, just 80 days away.

Republicans have argued that voter ID, like the law’s other provisions, protects against voter fraud. One Republican said Monday the court ruling opens the door to problems.

“The biggest effect is a loss of confidence in the electoral system and our elections processes,” said Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state Republican Party. “The ruling was good for voter fraud and good for Democrats. Voters will have to decide if those interests are connected.”

But from the time the measure was introduced in 2013, Democrats and their allies said it was aimed at reducing turnout, particularly among minorities who tend to vote Democratic.

“This was a purposeful, political move by the leaders of the General Assembly to restrict access to the ballot after 2008,” said Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist from Raleigh.

After a massive turnout effort, Barack Obama carried North Carolina by 14,000 votes in 2008, becoming the first Democrat to win the state in 32 years.

Same-day registration upheld

Analysts say same-day registration, available only in early voting, and the ability of voters to cast provisional ballots outside their own precinct could make the biggest difference this fall.

“Typically African-American voters who are reliable Democratic voters disproportionately use these opportunities,” Bitzer said.

Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a group that opposed the voting law, said 97,000 people voted early in 2012 – before the law took effect – by taking advantage of same-day registration.

“In the end, our worry was the loss of same-day registration was going to impact more people than anything else in terms of straight-up disenfranchisement,” he said Monday.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the voting case, Democracy North Carolina said nearly 23,000 people had used same-day registration in the March primary, where turnout was about half what it’s expected to be in November. Another 6,300 took advantage of out-of-precinct provisional voting. Both procedures were allowed under a court order that put certain parts of the 2013 law on hold.

The brief also said that 1,419 provisional ballots went uncounted because voters lacked proper IDs. Of those, it said, 34 percent were cast by African-Americans, who made up 23 percent of primary voters. “The fact that a photo ID requirement disproportionately harms minorities is undisputed,” the brief said.

Early voting affected

The federal judges said black voters disproportionately used early voting in 2008 and 2012. (Sixty-four percent of black voters voted early in 2012 compared to 49 percent of white voters.) The judges also said after lawmakers learned that African-American voters disproportionately cast ballots in the first seven days of early voting, they eliminated the first week.

But in eliminating that week, lawmakers required that counties make early voting accessible for the same number of cumulative hours for a presidential election as they did in 2012.

Now that requirement has been thrown out with the rest of the law. Counties could have to determine on their own how many hours to have early voting. Barring a judicial stay, election boards, which just submitted their early-voting plans on Friday – the day the court ruled – now have to start from scratch.

That includes Mecklenburg County, which had 22 early-voting sites in 2012.

“My goal is to have folks vote, and if we can get them to vote early, that makes Election Day easier for everybody,” said county elections Director Michael Dickerson. “The biggest thing for us is to minimize voter confusion.”

One Republican strategist downplayed the effect of the court ruling.

“We’ve had more elections without voter ID than we’ve had with voter ID,” said Paul Shumaker, a consultant for U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and other candidates.

“At the end of the day, in order to win an election you’ve got to have a majority of the votes.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill