October 2, 2014

Appeals court blocks two
provisions of voting law ahead of election


Provisions of the state election law that eliminated same-day voter registration during early voting  and counting of votes cast in the incorrect precincts were put aside by a panel of federal judges on Wednesday, but the last word is expected to come within a matter of days from the U.S. Supreme Court 

In the 2-1 ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the district court decision that had denied a request for a preliminary injunction was reversed on the same-day registration and out-of-precinct ballot provisions, but upheld on other parts of the 2013 election law.

The state today appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which leaves some uncertainty about what the rules will be for the Nov. 4 general election.

Judge James A. Wynn Jr. from Robersonville, N.C., who wrote the majority opinion, said that the lower court had “failed to adequately consider North Carolina’s history of voter discrimination” as required under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

“There can be no doubt that certain challenged measures in House Bill 589 disproportionately impact minority voters,” he wrote.

The percentage of blacks who register and vote on the same day was nearly twice that of white voters in 2012, and considerably larger than the percentage of white voters in prior elections, according to the opinion.

Wynn also rejected the lower court’s concern about the hardship on election officials if the law was stayed, saying that the county poll officials could readily revert to the practices under the previous law.

The Appeals Court held that the plaintiffs, which include the NAACP, the League of Women Voters and other groups, did not prove that irreparable harm would be done if the other provisions in the law were not stopped before the election. 

A trial on the entire law, including a controversial provision on a requirement to show certain identification before voting, is scheduled for July. The Voter ID requirement does not go into effect until 2016, so it was not an issue in the recent court rulings. 

“We do not mean to suggest that Plaintiffs cannot prove and eventually succeed on their challenges to all of these provisions when their case goes to trial,” Wynn wrote.
Shortly after the ruling was issued, state Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham and House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, announced that the state would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We are pleased the court upheld the lion’s share of commonsense reforms that bring North Carolina in line with a majority of other states, including the implementation of a popular voter ID requirement supported by nearly three quarters of North Carolinians,” they said in a press release.

“However, we share the concern of Judge Diana Gribbon Motz – the panel’s senior judge – that rewriting reasonable rules requiring people to vote in their own precinct and register in advance will strain our voting system, confuse voters and disrupt our general election that is only a month away.”

State Board of Elections spokeman Josh Lawson said that recent upgrades to the state elections system could render the once-automated same-day voting option inoperable.

The state is currently trying to determine whether that part of the system that was deactivated after the law changed can be restored.
If it cannot, he said, the same-day voting may have to be done manually. The additional cost to the state and the counties is not yet known, he added.  

Lawson said that the state is expecting that the Supreme Court will rule quickly on the state’s request for an emergency stay of the Appeals Court decision. But meanwhile, the election officials are obligated to follow the Appeals Court decision.

“We’re committed to enforcing the law the best we can at this time,” he said, “although we know there will be special burdens to the county.”

Melva Garrison, Dare County’s elections director, said that the county poll workers have enough time to regroup before early voting begins. But she said everyone is still waiting for direction from the state.  

“We’re not doing anything until we’re instructed to go forward,” she said.

Click here to read the opinion from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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