RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Friday blocked a North Carolina law that required voters to produce photo identification and follow other rules disproportionately affecting minorities, finding that the law was intended to make it harder for blacks to vote in the presidential battleground state.
RELATED: READ THE VOTER ID RULING
The Virginia-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals declared that the measures violated the Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act by targeting black voters “with almost surgical precision.” It marks the third ruling in less than two weeks against voter ID laws after court decisions regarding Texas and Wisconsin.
Friday’s opinion from a three-judge panel of the court states that “the legislature enacted one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history” when it rewrote voting laws in 2013.
The appeals judges also criticized the reasoning of a lower court that upheld the North Carolina law in April.
“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,” the panel wrote in its opinion.
Opponents of the law say the ruling should increase participation by black and Hispanic voters on Election Day in the state that also has closely contested races for U.S. Senate and governor. The U.S. Justice Department, state NAACP and League of Women Voters were among those who sued over the restrictions.
“This is a strong rebuke to what the North Carolina General Assembly did in 2013. It’s a powerful precedent that … federal courts will protect voting rights of voters of color,” said Allison Riggs, who served as the League of Women Voters’ lead lawyer.
The Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter of the NAACP, said in an interview that the ruling was a powerful victory for civil rights and for democracy.
“It is a vindication of our constitutional and moral critique and challenge to the constitutional extremism of our government,” he said.
North Carolina legislative leaders said they would appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court and blasted the judges as “three partisan Democrats.”
“We can only wonder if the intent is to reopen the door for voter fraud, potentially allowing fellow Democrat politicians … to steal the election,” state Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, both Republicans, said in a statement.
However, it’s unlikely that the evenly divided and short-handed Supreme Court would take the case or block Friday’s ruling from governing elections this November, said election-law experts Ned Foley of Ohio State University and Richard Hasen of the University of California at Irvine.
And the appeals court dismissed arguments that the law was aimed at preventing voter fraud.
“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,” the opinion states.
Earlier this month, a federal appeals court ruled that Texas’ strict voter ID law discriminates against minorities and must be weakened before the November elections. That followed a ruling by a federal judge in Wisconsin that residents without a photo ID in that state will still be allowed to vote in November.
Hasen said the North Carolina and Texas cases were taken on by the Obama Justice Department as a bulwark against state voting restrictions.
“If North Carolina and Texas could get away with these voting restrictions, it would have been a green light for other states to do so,” he said. “I think this is a hugely important decision.”
North Carolina’s voting laws were rewritten in 2013 by the General Assembly two years after Republicans took control of both legislative chambers for the first time in a century. It was also shortly after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling changed the requirement that many Southern states receive federal approval before changing voting laws.
The voter ID mandate, which took effect with this year’s March primary, required voters to show one of six qualifying IDs, although voters facing “reasonable impediments” could fill out a form and cast a provisional ballot.
North Carolina legislators made the photo ID requirement for in-person ballots, curtailed the early voting period and eliminated same-day registration and voters’ ability to cast out-of-precinct provisional ballots in their home counties.
The appeals court said data showed that these methods were used disproportionately by black voters, who also were more likely to lack a qualifying ID, and it ruled to block these contested provisions of the law.
The judges wrote that in the years before the North Carolina law took effect, registration and participation by black voters had been dramatically increasing.
“We recognize that elections have consequences, but winning an election does not empower anyone in any party to engage in purposeful racial discrimination,” the panel said. “When a legislature dominated by one party has dismantled barriers to African American access to the franchise, even if done to gain votes, ‘politics as usual’ does not allow a legislature dominated by the other party to re-erect those barriers.”
Reactions to the ruling ranged from jubilation on the Democratic side to anger and disappointment on the Republican side.
Gov. Pat McCrory released a statement saying that the ruling will be appealed.
Photo IDs are required to purchase sudafed, cash a check, board an airplane or enter a federal court room. Yet, three Democratic judges are undermining the integrity of our elections while also maligning our state. We will immediately appeal and also review other potential options.”
Rep. Tim Moore, N.C. Speaker of the House and President Pro Tempore Sen. Phil Berger also disagreed with the ruling and issued a joint statement saying that the ruling will allow “Democrat politicians” to steal the upcoming election.
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. We will obviously be appealing this politically-motivated decision to the Supreme Court.”
The North Carolina GOP’s Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse told CBS North Carolina that the ruling is “disgraceful” and went on to say that “It is offensive to say minorities in North Carolina cannot go get an ID. That is an excuse, and that is finding something to overturn a law they didn’t like. It is a partisan ruling.”
Francis De Luca, president of the Civitas Institute, expressed outrage at the decision.
North Carolina’s common-sense voter ID law was passed to preserve the security and integrity of our elections process. North Carolina’s voters deserve the confidence that their votes will not be diluted by fraud. Just before a crucial presidential election, the liberal judges of the Fourth Circuit are once again legislating from the bench and seem to be looking for opportunities to overturn North Carolina law at every turn. The continual overreach of the courts like the Fourth Circuit undermines the belief in self-government through elected representatives and our democratic republic.
It is simply outrageous that the court cites race as a reason for overturning North Carolina’s voter ID law. No one has been able to point to a single example of a voter being disenfranchised as a result of this law. In fact, voter turnout has increased since the law was enacted.”
On the other end of the political spectrum, Patsy Keever, the North Carolina Democratic Party’s chair was thrilled by the ruling.
The North Carolina Democratic Party applauds this decision to restore voting rights to disenfranchised North Carolina voters. It’s no surprise the court has ruled that the Republican General Assembly is once again guilty of government overreach. Governor McCrory and the GOP want to restrict ballot access because they know they can’t win on their record of public education funding cuts and hurting our state’s economy by passing their discrimination law, HB2. We look forward to the chance to elect new leadership in November to put North Carolina back on track.”
Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause NC, called the ruling a “big win for all North Carolina voters.”
Today’s decision is a big win for all North Carolina voters and a victory for everyone who believes in an inclusive democracy. We are pleased that the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals recognized that the restrictions enacted by the legislature hurt North Carolinians by creating unnecessary and discriminatory barriers to voting. This decision is a vital step in returning North Carolina to its position as a national leader on voting rights and equal access to the polls.”
The North Carolina State Board of Elections also issued a statement encouraging voters to “stay informed of developments.”
We encourage all voters to stay informed of developments over the coming weeks. Our agency is carefully reviewing today’s decision from the Fourth Circuit. Absent alternative guidance from the courts, voters will not be asked to show photo identification this election. Early voting will run October 20 through November 5, and same-day registration will be available at early voting sites. If voters do not appear at their assigned precinct within their county, their vote will still count for all eligible contests. However, to avoid voting a provisional ballot, we encourage voters to appear at their properly-assigned precinct on Election Day. Counsel for the state are reviewing options on appeal. Regardless of the outcome, our agency will continue to educate voters and prepare elections officials ahead of November.
United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement that she was “pleased” with the court’s ruling.
I am pleased that the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has struck down a law that the court described in its ruling as “one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history.” As the court found, this law was passed with discriminatory intent. It targeted African-Americans “with almost surgical precision” – imposing stringent ID requirements, reducing same-day registration and constraining out-of-precinct voting to place barriers between citizens and the ballot box. And it sent a message that contradicted some of the most basic principles of our democracy. The ability of Americans to have a voice in the direction of their country – to have a fair and free opportunity to help write the story of this nation – is fundamental to who we are and who we aspire to be. Going forward, the Department of Justice will continue our work to protect that sacred right for all.”
CBS North Carolina has a team of reporters working on this breaking news and will have live reports on North Carolina News starting at 5 p.m.
CBS North Carolina contributed to this report.