[Image via all-flags-world]
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 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.”
Here’s the key passage that summarizes the judge’s view of the case:
North Carolina has provided legitimate State interests for its voter-ID requirement and electoral system that provides registration all year long up to twenty-five days before an election, absentee voting for up to sixty days before an election, ten days of early voting at extended hours convenient for workers that includes one Sunday and two Saturdays, and Election Day voting. Plaintiffs oppose this system because they preferred one that they say was even more convenient – which they used disproportionately during certain elections – and point to some fraction of voters who did not vote or register. Plaintiffs’ contention that such voters did not do so because of vestiges of historical official discrimination is rebutted by the facts. There is strong evidence that some other reason is at play for the failure of these persons to register and/or vote. The unprecedented gains by African Americans in registration and turnout, both during and even in 2014 after [passage of the new law] , bolster this conclusion. While the consideration is clearly local and practical in nature, based on North Carolina’s unique facts, it would no doubt bear relevance if North Carolina were seeking to return to an electoral system that was not in the mainstream of other States. It is not. [p. 476]
The length and detail of the judge’s lengthy opinion will be a major factor on appeal, according to UC-Irvine law professor Rick Hasen [whose full analysis at that link is well worth reading]:
The judge engaged in extensive fact finding about the extent of the burden of the voter identification law, especially as it has been “softened” by the “reasonable impediment” exemption from the law. The court spends dozens of pages discussing the efforts the state has made to roll out and educate about the voter identification law, as well as how the reasonable impediment law would allow certain voters to vote without providing voter identification. The judge concludes that although some voters faced burdens getting identification under the state’s rules, not that many voters would face these burdens (and many fewer people lack the id than the plaintiffs claimed), and many of the burdens that such voters face would be alleviated by being able to vote under the reasonable impediment exemption. These factual findings increase greatly the chances of the voter identification aspect of the law being upheld on appeal, and certainly they would alleviate the concerns of the four more conservative Supreme Court justices …
After a few hundred pages of detailed factual findings, many of which dispute the evidentiary findings and tests performed by plaintiffs’ experts … the court turned to the legal issues. The court said it was applying the 4th Circuit’s test for Voting Rights Act section 2 vote denial cases, and under that test found that the totality of the circumstances did not lead the court to conclude that protected minority voters have less opportunity than others to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice. This is the finding which would be most vulnerable to being overruled by the 4th circuit on appeal. However, given the detailed negative factual findings of the trial court, this may be a difficult task.
The race is now on to determine whether or not the judge’s ruling – part of which (early voting and out-of-precinct provisional ballots) is stayed for the June primary – will apply in the fall. There will be some focus on the makeup of the appeals panel in the 4th Circuit, but as Hasen notes, the judge’s opinion is so detailed that it will limit the freedom of appellate review there or during likely Supreme Court review. As Election Day approaches, we will also likely see a return of discussions about whether the so-called “Purcell principle” applies.
Obviously, this is a big, big deal in North Carolina and nationally – and will only add to the ferocity of the political and policy fights currently underway in Raleigh.
Stay tuned …