Federal Judge upholds North Carolina voter rules

By Alan Blinder and Richard Fausset, NY Times

NC Voting Rights rally

A voting rights rally in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 2015. Travis Dove for the New York Times

RALEIGH, N.C. — A federal judge on Monday upheld sweeping Republican-backed changes to election rules, including a voter identification provision, that civil rights groups say unfairly targeted African-Americans and other minorities. The ruling could have serious political repercussions in a state that is closely contested in presidential elections.
The opinion, by Judge Thomas D. Schroeder of Federal District Court in Winston-Salem, upheld the repeal of a provision that allowed people to register and vote on the same day. It also upheld a seven-day reduction in the early-voting period; the end of preregistration, which allowed some people to sign up before their 18th birthdays; and the repeal of a provision that allowed for the counting of ballots cast outside voters’ home precinct.
It also left intact North Carolina’s voter identification requirement, which legislators softened last year to permit residents to cast ballots, even if they lack the required documentation, if they submit affidavits.
The ruling could have significant repercussions in North Carolina, a state that Barack Obama barely won in 2008, and that the Republican Mitt Romney barely won four years later.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which sits in Richmond, Va., will be the first to consider an appeal, which the law’s opponents said they would pursue. If the Fourth Circuit or the Supreme Court does not intervene, the changes will be in force when voters go to the polls this autumn. North Carolina voters will also elect a governor in what is expected to be one of this year’s most competitive state races.
The ruling is an early signal of how federal judges might regard changes and challenges to voting laws in the aftermath of a 2013 Supreme Court decision that effectively eliminated a portion of the Voting Rights Act that had forced nine states, mostly in the South, to obtain advance federal approval before changing their election laws.
“North Carolina has provided legitimate state interests for its voter ID requirement and electoral system,” Judge Schroeder said near the end of his 485-page opinion. The judge, an appointee of President George W. Bush, found that North Carolina’s system was not beyond “the mainstream of other states.”
Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, who signed the bill scaling back the voter access provisions in August 2013, welcomed the decision. He said in a statement that “this ruling further affirms that requiring a photo ID in order to vote is not only common sense, it’s constitutional.”
But critics vowed to appeal the ruling, and charged, as they often have, that the legislature sought to eliminate tools that made it easier for everyone, but particularly minority voters, to get to the polls.
“By meticulously targeting measures that were most used by people of color — in addition to imposing a restrictive photo ID requirement — the legislature sought to disturb the levers of power in North Carolina, ensuring only a select few could participate in the democratic process,” Penda D. Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project and a critic of the law, said in a statement. “This fight is not over.”
In his ruling, the judge suggested that past discrimination had abated. “There is significant, shameful past discrimination,” he wrote. “In North Carolina’s recent history, however, certainly for the last quarter century, there is little official discrimination to consider.”
Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, who signed the bill scaling back the voter access provisions in August 2013, welcomed the decision. He said in a statement that “this ruling further affirms that requiring a photo ID in order to vote is not only common sense, it’s constitutional.”
But critics vowed to appeal the ruling, and charged, as they often have, that the legislature sought to eliminate tools that made it easier for everyone, but particularly minority voters, to get to the polls.
“By meticulously targeting measures that were most used by people of color — in addition to imposing a restrictive photo ID requirement — the legislature sought to disturb the levers of power in North Carolina, ensuring only a select few could participate in the democratic process,” Penda D. Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project and a critic of the law, said in a statement. “This fight is not over.”
In his ruling, the judge suggested that past discrimination had abated. “There is significant, shameful past discrimination,” he wrote. “In North Carolina’s recent history, however, certainly for the last quarter century, there is little official discrimination to consider.”
The law, which originally included a much stricter voter ID provision, was passed by the Republican-controlled legislature in summer 2013, shortly after the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder.
The ruling effectively eliminated what was known as the “preclearance” process, in which certain states and local governments had to submit proposed voting changes to the Justice Department or to a federal court in Washington.
Judge Schroeder’s decision capped a trial court record that stretched more than 23,000 pages and included weeks of testimony about the General Assembly’s revisions to the election laws here. The voter identification standard, which required voters to display one of six forms of documentation, was central to an overhaul that supporters described as a bulwark against fraud.
But opponents of the changes said they were intended to disenfranchise black and Hispanic voters, an assertion they repeated on Monday.
“Through widespread actions, rallies, marches and protests, we have said all along that we would accept no less than unabridged access to the ballot for all eligible voters,” said the Rev. William J. Barber II, the president of the North Carolina N.A.A.C.P. “Just like those who carried on before us, we will continue our movement challenging regressive and discriminatory voter suppression tactics on behalf of African-Americans, Latinos, seniors, students and all those for whom democracy has been denied.”
Such comments surfaced occasionally on Monday here in the state capital, where Mr. Barber led demonstrations against the state’s new law about gay and transgender rights and, occasionally, veered into other issues that have propelled his Moral Monday movement of activism.
The N.A.A.C.P., the League of Women Voters and the Justice Department were among the plaintiffs challenging the 2013 law. A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Daniel T. Donovan, said he expected a higher court to block the changes from being enforced this year. “We’re disappointed in the ruling, reviewing the decision carefully and evaluating our options,” said Dena Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department.The plaintiffs may have reason to be optimistic about their chances at the Fourth Circuit. In fall 2014, a three-judge panel of the appellate court issued a preliminary injunction forcing the state to temporarily restore two ballot access provisions: one that allows same-day registration and another that allows for the counting of provisional ballots filed outside voters’ home precincts. The panel ruled that the elimination of those two provisions probably violated another section of the Voting Rights Act that remains intact, known as Section 2, which prohibits racially discriminatory voting rules.
Judge James A. Wynn Jr. wrote at the time that there was “undisputed evidence” that those two provisions “were enacted to increase voter participation, that African-American voters disproportionately used those electoral mechanisms and that House Bill 589 restricted those mechanisms and thus disproportionately impacts African-American voters.”

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