Back in April I posted that a North Carolina Judge upholds that states’ ‘most restrictive voting law in the nation’.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals expediting the appeal of this case, and oral argument was heard today by a three judge panel. Federal appeals court skeptical of North Carolina voting restrictions:
Wide-ranging restrictions on voting in North Carolina came under attack as racially discriminatory in a federal appeals court Tuesday, with one judge saying the legislature’s rush to impose limits after getting a green light from the Supreme Court “looks pretty bad to me.”
The law is the most expansive of any passed after the high court’s 5-4 ruling in 2013 freed mostly Southern states from needing federal approval before changing their election procedures.
A three-judge panel that heard oral arguments Tuesday has only weeks to issue a ruling in the case before the state’s timetable for the fall elections could be impacted. Texas is in a similar boat — the Supreme Court has invited voting rights advocates to seek a delay in that state’s photo ID requirement, previously struck down as racially discriminatory by two federal courts, if an appeals court does not rule by mid-July.
The panel appeared divided during Tuesday’s 80-minute oral argument, with two judges appearing to believe that the state purposefully discriminated against African-American voters by eliminating same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting, requiring photo ID and reducing early voting. The same-day and out-of-precinct restrictions are on hold for now.
The question, Judge James Wynn said, is whether “race was used here as a basis for suppressing the minority vote,” which tilts overwhelmingly Democratic. It was the support of African Americans that swung the state to Barack Obama in 2008 by a mere 14,000 votes, helping him win the White House.
Judge Henry Floyd said the law was changed by Republicans after more liberal voting procedures had resulted in a surge of registrations from African Americans. “It looks pretty bad to me, in terms of purposeful discrimination,” he said.
North Carolina’s law was upheld in federal district court in April but faces possible reversal at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, where Tuesday’s panel included two judges named by Obama and one by Bill Clinton. The same three-judge panel in 2014 required the state to restore same-day registration and count ballots cast outside voters’ correct precincts — options that were used by more than 100,000 voters in 2012.
The North Carolina and Texas cases are the leading contenders to get to the Supreme Court as early as
next this year, when the justices could define what types of voting changes are allowed and prohibited under the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution. As of now, said Thomas Farr, the lawyer representing North Carolina Tuesday, “There is not a lot of guidance from the Supreme Court on these vote dilution cases.”
In the meantime, the high court likely will weigh in this year on emergency petitions seeking to block changes approved by lower courts from taking effect before the November elections. In 2014, it let restrictions stand in North Carolina, Ohio and Texas while blocking them in Wisconsin.
Chief Justice John Roberts’ court has itself to thank for some of the laws enacted after the justices struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. The laws impose new rules for registering and voting that could limit access to the polls for minorities and young people in particular — the coalition that propelled Obama to the White House in 2008 and 2012.
It was that coalition that lawyers for the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and other challengers sought to protect Tuesday. The courtroom was packed with two busloads of people who traveled to Virginia for the hearing. They held a moment of silence before the judges entered the courtroom for what their leader, Rev. William Barber, called “all of the martyrs who fought for voting rights.”
Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights group, told the judges that the plight of African-American voters today was directly connected to “the state’s sordid racial history.” All the changes made by the state legislature after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision weakened the Voting Rights Act, she said, “disfavored African Americans.”
“North Carolina picked up where history left off in 1965,” added Allison Riggs, a staff attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “They knew the disparate impact of every one of these decisions … on racial minority voters.”
Farr, the lawyer representing North Carolina, countered that District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder, in a 485-page ruling, found that the legislature acted responsibly by accepting changes in the law, delaying implementation of the photo ID requirement and mandating voter education. He said North Carolina’s law was not as harmful as the one in Texas, seen as the toughest photo ID law in the nation.
So North Carolina’s defense is that “At least we’re not as bad as those racist yahoos in Texas?” I’m not sure this an argument they want to make.
It is possible that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up election law challenges from North Carolina and Texas, and possibly Wisconsin, on an emergency basis prior to the start of its 2016-17 Term on the first Monday in October.