Voting Rights and Democracy

Fourth Circuit Strikes North Carolina Voter ID Law, Finding ‘Discriminatory Intent’

By Zoe Tillman

A federal appeals court on Friday struck down a North Carolina election law package that imposed new voter ID requirements, finding that the law was adopted with “discriminatory intent.”

The voter ID rules and other changes to state election law—scaling back early voting and getting rid of same-day registration, for instance—disproportionately affected African American voters, Judge Diana Gribbon Motz of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit wrote. North Carolina “offered only meager justifications” for the new law, she said.

“Although the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision, they constitute inapt remedies for the problems assertedly justifying them and, in fact, impose cures for problems that did not exist. Thus the asserted justifications cannot and do not conceal the State’s true motivation,” Motz wrote. “Faced with this record, we can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent.”

The ruling comes just over a week after a full sitting of the Fifth Circuit found that Texas’ voter ID law discriminated against African American and Latino voters.

Civil rights groups that challenged the North Carolina law hailed Friday’s decision as a “monumental victory.”

“It is a stunning rebuke to the North Carolina general assembly that what they did in 2013 was not at all acceptable and you can’t play games like this with the voting rights of voters of color,” said Allison Jean Riggs of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, one of three lawyers who argued against the law in the Fourth Circuit. Kirkland & Ellis also represents the challengers.

North Carolina officials said in a statement that they “obviously” would seek to take the Fourth Circuit’s “politically-motivated decision” to the U.S. Supreme Court. The North Carolina Department of Justice and Thomas Farr of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart in Raleigh argued in defense of the law.

“Since today’s decision by three partisan Democrats ignores legal precedent, ignores the fact that other federal courts have used North Carolina’s law as a model, and ignores the fact that a majority of other states have similar protections in place, we can only wonder if the intent is to reopen the door for voter fraud, potentially allowing fellow Democrat politicians like Hillary Clinton and Roy Cooper to steal the election,” North Carolina Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore said in a joint statement.

Under the federal Voting Rights Act, which until 2013 required certain states with a history of discriminating against minorities to seek approval from the Justice Department or a federal court before making changes to election processes, African American participation in elections in North Carolina “dramatically improved,” Motz wrote. In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court essentially struck down the section of the voting law that required North Carolina to seek “preclearance” for new election laws.

After the Supreme Court’s decision, the North Carolina legislature adopted a new election law that included a requirement that in-person voters show certain kinds of photo identification. The law also rolled back or restricted voter registration and access “tools” that African American voters were more likely to use, such as early voting and same-day registration, the appeals court said.

Before adopting the new election law, lawmakers received data that would have put them on notice that African Americans would be “disproportionately” affected by the changes, Motz wrote.

Civil rights groups sued the state. U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder, who heard testimony and arguments over 25 days in 2014 and 2015, in April ruled for North Carolina, finding no discriminatory intent in the new election law. He wrote that the state had provided “legitimate state interests” for the voter ID requirement—which was amended in 2015 to add an exception for voters that could show a “reasonable impediment” to getting the required photo ID—and other changes in election processes.

The Fourth Circuit stayed that decision pending the outcome of the appeals that followed. The three-judge panel heard arguments on June 21.

Motz wrote that Schroeder ignored “critical facts bearing on legislative intent, including the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina.

“In holding that the legislature did not enact the challenged provisions with discriminatory intent, the court seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees,” Motz said.

Judges James Wynn Jr. and Henry Floyd joined Motz’s majority opinion that the law was adopted with discriminatory intent. The panel partly split on what the remedy should be. Wynn, joined by Floyd, permanently blocked all of the challenged provisions. Motz wrote that she would have only temporarily blocked the photo ID requirement and sent the case back for the lower court to consider the effect of the 2015 amendment that added the “reasonable impediment” exception to the requirement.

The challengers had asked the Fourth Circuit to consider placing North Carolina back under the preclearance requirements of the Voting Rights Act and require poll observers during elections. The court rejected that request, saying that the injunction made such a move unnecessary.

Brianne Gorod, general counsel of the Constitutional Accountability Center, said in a statement that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder “flashed a green light to conservative elected officials across the country looking for ways to restrict access to the ballot box.” The Fourth Circuit, Gorod said, “unanimously and correctly flashed a red light to that approach today.”

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