In a Huge Win for Voting Rights, Federal Appeals Court Blocks North Carolina's Voter Suppression Law

Election '16

In an extraordinary ruling, a federal appeals court overturned a lower court ruling and granted a broad injunction against North Carolina Republicans’ sweeping voter suppression law. Crucially, the appeals court found that the legislation, which created a strict voter ID requirement, ended same-day registration, out-of-precinct voting, and pre-registration, was “passed with racially discriminatory intent.” And unlike recent rulings against new voter ID law in Texas and Wisconsin, which only ameliorated the impact of those laws, this decision blocks North Carolina’s entire voter ID measure.

This ruling is an enormous victory for voting rights, and not just because voter ID will no longer be required at the polls. The finding of discriminatory intent is key because it could ultimately serve as future grounds for placing North Carolina back under the Department of Justice’s “preclearance” regime for 10 years. Many states, mostly in the South, that had a history of racial discrimination once had to clear any changes to voting procedures with the Justice Department, and if they were found to restrict minority voting rights, they were disallowed.

But after the Supreme Court gutted a key part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, several states like North Carolina swiftly passed new voting restrictions that were no longer subject to the Justice Department’s review. However, a separate provision of the VRA allows the courts to reimpose preclearance, which would present a major obstacle if North Carolina Republicans ever try to impose similar restrictions in the future.

Republican legislators could appeal this ruling, either to the entire 4th Circuit Court of Appeals or to the Supreme Court. However, judges appointed by Democratic presidents now dominate the 4th Circuit, and with the Supreme Court ideologically split four-to-four, a likely deadlock would leave the appeals court’s ruling in place. Still, North Carolina’s restrictive voting law has been effectively blocked for the 2016 election, which could have enormous consequences given its status as a key swing state and home to one of 2016’s most important elections for governor and possible a competitive Senate race as well.

See election law scholar Rick Hasen’s coverage for developing details.

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