Federal Court Strikes Parts of North Carolina Voting Restriction Law

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected key provisions of North Carolina’s recently passed voting law on grounds that it violated provisions of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.  The decision is the result of a lawsuit initiated by several plaintiffs, including the NAACP and the US Government, who alleged North Carolina’s law unfairly restricted the voting rights of African Americans.

North Carolina Voting Law Raises Civil Rights Questions

The Republican supported HB589 passed through North Carolina’s legislature last year after the Supreme Court lifted provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that prevented jurisdictions in Southern states from changing electoral procedures without federal approval.  The bill added a number of restrictions on voting including:

  • Reduction on days allowed for early voting from 17 to 10
  • An expansion of challenging voter eligibility of the people standing in line to vote
  • Restrictions on voter registration drives targeting citizens under 18
  • Voter identification requirements that are set to take full effect in 2016
  • Prohibited extend hours for polling stations
  • Elimination of same-day voter registration
  • Disallowing voters to cast ballots outside of their home precinct

With only weeks to go before the November, 2014 elections, the 4th Circuit reversed a lower court ruling by rejecting that last two listed provisions – elimination of same-day voter registration and disqualification of ballots cast outside of home districts. 

4th Circuit Rejects Provisions of North Carolina Voting Law

In a 2-1 decision, the majority of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals found two key elements of the North Carolina law unconstitutional for discriminating against African American voters.  The majority opinion cited established law from the Supreme Court that identified voting as a fundamental right guaranteed to all Americans, increasing the legal standard used to review the law’s legality.  Going further, the Court pointed out that North Carolina has a long history of discriminatory practices against black voters, and thus the state’s historical approach to voting restrictions must be considered when reviewing the intent, and likely effect, of any voter laws.

Establishing how it would analyze North Carolina’s voting restriction law, the 4th Circuit went on to denounce two of its provisions has having a discriminatory effect on African American voters.  The Court found that by eliminating the right for voters to cast a ballot the same day that they register and discounting votes cast out of home precincts, the North Carolina legislature took action that would have an adverse impact on the state’s black voters.  While the state defended both the rejected provisions as improving the efficiency of the voting process, the 4th Circuit agreed with challengers to the law that the stated intent was insufficient to justify the discriminatory effect the law would have.

Writing for the majority, Judge James Wynn emphasized that no disproportionately negative impact on black voters is acceptable by arguing, “Whether the number is thirty or thirty-thousand, some North Carolina minority voters will be disproportionately adversely affected in the upcoming election… [a]nd once the election occurs, there can be no do-over and no redress.”  Over the dissent of Judge Diana Motz, who found that such a late change to voting procedures would spread confusion and foster distrust of the process, the 4th Circuit struck down the two provisions as being unconstitutional.

Plaintiffs Continue Fight against NC Voter Law

Reverend William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, was pleased with the decision, but promised the fight was not finished.  Saying, “We will charge ahead until this bill is permanently overturned in the full trial next summer. Until then, we will continue to take our movement to the streets to make sure all people in our democracy have an equal voice in this and all elections,” Rev. Barber set his sights on the remaining provisions that the 4th Circuit left untouched.  With voter restriction laws a hot topic across the American legal community, today’s 4th Circuit decision is an important piece of what promises to be a much larger puzzle.

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