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US high court refuses to reinstate North Carolina voter ID

Voters in Chapel Hill and throughout North Carolina presented identification cards for the first time during the primary election in June. Recent court rulings have overturned the state’s voter ID law.
Voters in Chapel Hill and throughout North Carolina presented identification cards for the first time during the primary election in June. Recent court rulings have overturned the state’s voter ID law. hlynch@newsobserver.com

North Carolina residents will start voting on Oct. 20 and won’t need photo IDs this fall after a divided U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday handed another legal setback to state Republicans.

The high court refused to grant Gov. Pat McCrory’s request to block a lower court ruling that threw out a sweeping 2013 voting law. The vote was 4-4, with five votes needed to grant a stay.

The law, considered one of the nation’s most restrictive, not only required IDs but eliminated same-day registration, stopped voters from casting ballots in the wrong precinct and shaved a week off the early voting period.

Last month, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the GOP-written law was discriminatory, designed to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

“The Supreme Court acted in the best interest of North Carolina voters, allowing elections this fall to proceed absent the cloud and concern of racially discriminatory voting laws,” said Allison Riggs, an attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who helped argue the case before the appeals court.

State NAACP President William Barber called the order “another major victory for justice, African Americans, Latinos, and all North Carolinians.”

But McCrory said the order denies North Carolina “basic voting rights already granted to more than 30 other states.” He also jabbed at his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Roy Cooper.

“Even without any support from our state’s attorney general, we were pleased that four justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, agreed with this right while four liberal justices blocked North Carolina protections afforded by our sensible voter laws,” McCrory said.

Vacancy ‘boomerangs’

Wednesday’s order came from a high court short-handed since February’s death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

Chief Justice John Roberts joined Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas in supporting McCrory’s request – one vote short of what was needed.

It takes only four votes from the court to take on a case, which could still happen. But the four other justices apparently believe that McCrory’s appeal did not reach the higher standard for emergency intervention, said Charlotte attorney John Wester, who has practiced before the Supreme Court but is not connected to the case.

Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer said the absence of the ninth justice, and the court’s reluctance to take on high-profile cases until the seat is filled, continues to damage Republican initiatives in several states.

“If Scalia were on (the court), we would have a very different decision,” he said.

Wednesday’s opinion again showed how the Scalia vacancy continues “to boomerang against the GOP,” said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor who has followed the North Carolina voting case. Courts have also rejected all or parts of voting plans in Texas and Wisconsin.

“Certainly in the voting area, we’re likely to see more of it,” he said. “That’s one of the prices the Republicans have to pay. And it’s pretty steep.”

Early voting

The ruling was the latest legal setback to the Republican governor and lawmakers.

Within the past year, federal panels also have thrown out GOP redistricting plans for congressional and legislative districts. The U.S. Justice Department is among those challenging the constitutionality of House Bill 2, the law that among other things requires people in government facilities to use bathrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates.

The 2013 law shortened early voting from 17 to 10 days, but required the same number of overall hours as were available in 2012. Since the July ruling throwing out the law, local elections board have been scheduling early voting into a 17-day period – but without the requirement for minimum hours.

Despite pleas not to curtail early voting, Mecklenburg County elections officials voted this month to cut the overall number of early voting hours by 238, even while opening as many as 22 sites. Early voting starts Oct. 20.

Challengers to the GOP election laws welcomed the ruling.

“This ruling means that thousands of voters who would have been disenfranchised will now be able to participate in the presidential election.,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, said, “It’s time for Gov. McCrory and Republican leaders to end the costly wrangling and invest in making sure voters face no new roadblocks to having their voices heard.”

Moments after his statement, McCrory’s deputy campaign manager, Billy Constangy, cited the court order in a fundraising appeal. “Confirm your contribution … to help ensure our elections are fair,” he emailed.

Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said, “From the start, Gov. McCrory should have followed Attorney General Cooper’s advice and vetoed this law.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

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