The Republican leadership of the General Assembly and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory have done considerable damage to North Carolina’s image, its economy, its health care system and other areas, but what may ultimately be most remembered and regretted is their assault on voting rights.
A 2013 voting law that will disproportionally make voting more difficult for African Americans and young people is cynically being promoted as a protection of voting integrity. It is a contrived cover for voter suppression that rings as false as trying to justify racial segregation as a defense of state rights.
Some day the authors of the law and the governor who signed it may be ashamed of this action just as segregationists came to rue their denial of others’ rights. But they surely are not ashamed now. Indeed, on the very day that a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a preliminary injunction blocking two key provisions of the law, House Speaker Thom Tillis, Senate leader Phil Berger and the governor pledged to petition the U.S. Supreme Court for an emergency order to stay the ruling.
One too many
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In a 2-1 decision, the 4th Circuit panel ruled that U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder erred in August when he rejected the request for an injunction by the NAACP, League of Women Voters and registered Democrats in North Carolina. The plaintiffs argued that the voting law should be suspended until there is a ruling on its legality following a trial set for July 2015. (The law’s requirement of a valid photo ID to vote won’t take effect until 2016).
Schroeder agreed that there was evidence that the law could disproportionally affect African-American voters, but he said the effect was not significant enough to issue an injunction. Appeals court Judges James Wynn and William Floyd said Schroeder’s ruling wrongly ignored the “basic truth that even one disenfranchised voter – let alone several thousand – is too many.”
The appellate judges expressed doubts about the legality of the law overall but said there was an immediate need to suspend only two parts: the elimination of same-day registration and the prohibition on counting provisional ballots cast outside a voter’s proper precinct.
Captive to partisanship
The state’s petition may well succeed, not because of its legal merits, but because the high court is captive to partisan zeal, and nowhere is it more so than in cases involving elections. In 5-4 votes that broke along ideological lines, the justices have lifted restrictions on political contributions by corporations in Citizens United and gutted the Voting Rights Act. This week, in another 5-4 ruling, the court blocked a federal appeals court ruling that would have restored seven days of early voting in Ohio.
Should the Supreme Court clear the way for the law to go forward intact, it won’t necessarily signal its support for the law itself. It may be too flawed even for the Roberts court.
The 4th Circuit ruling found that the plaintiffs are on solid legal ground in challenging the law known as House Bill 589. It said, “A proper application of the law to a more developed factual record could very well result in some or all of the challenged House Bill 589 provision being struck down.” The Supreme Court’s conservative majority may now have second thoughts about weakening the Voting Rights Act. One reason may be the way North Carolina waited until the high court ruled to pass its bundle of voting changes.
If North Carolina’s Republican leaders were as interested in the integrity of their law as they claim to be about the integrity of elections, they would accept the injunction and wait for the courts to decide whether all or any of House Bill 589’s provisions are legal.