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Wednesday, July 24, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Fourth Circuit Blocks Parts of NC Election Law

(CN) - A divided 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling this morning, restoring same-day voter registration and reinstating out-of-precinct provisional voting on Voting Rights Act grounds.

However, other key provisions, such as reduction of early-voting days and the expansion of allowable voter challengers, will go into effect before the election in November.

Writing for the majority, Circuit Judge James Wynn Jr. acknowledged that "North Carolina will have little time to implement the relief we grant. But for some of the challenged changed, such as the elimination of same-day registration, systems have existed, do exist, and simply need to be resurrected.

"Similarly, counting out-of-precinct ballots merely requires the revival of pervious practices or, however accomplished, the counting of a relatively small number of ballots."

The bottom line, Wynn said, is that "the district court got the law plainly wrong in several crucial respects" and "abused its discretion" in denying the plaintiffs injunctive relief.

In dissent, Circuit Court Judge Diana Motz wrote that the majority emphasizes that unlawfully or unconstitutionally depriving North Carolinians of the opportunity to vote is an irreparable harm.

"I do not contend to the contrary," she said. "But by the same token, the requested injunction will require the State to halt the ongoing implementation of one of its duly enacted statutes - a statute that, for now at least, has not been rendered invalid."

Motz felt the plaintiffs "have neither established a clear likelihood of success on the merits, nor demonstrated, particularly at this late juncture, that the balance of equities and the public interest weigh in their favor."

She concluded: "A law that adopts a 'death by a thousand cuts' approach to voting rights is no more valid than a law that constricts one aspect of the voting process in a particularly onerous manner."

The appellate court upheld the judge's denial of a request for an injunction with respect to the reduction of early-voting days; the expansion of allowable voter challengers; the elimination of the discretion of county boards of elections to keep the polls open an additional hour on Election Day in "extraordinary circumstances"; the elimination of pre-registration of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds who will not be eighteen years old by the next general election; and the soft roll-out of voter identification requirements to go into effect in 2016.

The ACLU and Southern Coalition for Social Justice challenged provisions of the NC voting law, charging that eliminating a week of early voting, ending same-day registration, and prohibiting out-of-precinct voting, would unduly burden the right to vote and discriminate against African-American voters, in violation of the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause and the Voting Rights Act.

According to the ACLU, in both 2008 and 2012, approximately 250,000 North Carolinians registered and voted in one trip to an early voting site. African Americans disproportionately relied on same-day registration in both elections.

In a statement, Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, one of two organizations that represented the plaintiffs in the case, said the ruling, "safeguards the vote for tens of thousands of North Carolinians."

"It means they will continue to be able to use same-day registration, just as they have during the last three federal elections," Ho said.

Allison Riggs, staff attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, was blunter.

"The court has rebuked attempts to undermine voter participation," Riggs said in the statement.

The original case, League of Women Voters of North Carolina v. North Carolina, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.

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