Last week, voting-rights advocates hailed a legal victory—at least briefly—when a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit cleared the way for North Carolina voters to utilize same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct provisional balloting, both of which were eliminated in a revision of the state’s election law that was passed by a Republican legislature in 2013.
But any celebration was incomplete—and short-lived.
The good news for voting-rights advocates—including the North Carolina NAACP, the League of Women Voters and the Advancement Project—was the court’s injunction, staying implementation of the two new key provisions for the upcoming November midterm election.
In a statement, the Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, said, “The evidence clearly showed that under North Carolina’s voter-suppression law, African Americans would have faced higher barriers to the ballot this November, and the court took an important step to ensure that this election will remain free, fair and accessible to all North Carolina voters.”
The 4th Circuit’s decision was also praised by Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, who said that voters of color “would have borne the brunt of the burden if same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting were not allowed this November.” She called the partial injunction “an important first step” in “a long fight to fully restore the rights of North Carolina voters and renew the integrity of democracy in the state.”
But the bad news for voting-rights advocates is that North Carolina has now asked the U.S. Supreme Court for an order to stay the 4th Circuit’s ruling and restore the provisions—and the state may get results. When an appeals court blocked similar provisions passed in Ohio, the Supreme Court stepped in to reverse that ruling. The vote was 5-4, with judges appointed by Republicans winning out over those appointed by Democrats.
North Carolina’s new voter provisions were passed after the Supreme Court invalidated key portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which required preclearance of voting-law changes in some states and counties. A provision for requiring photo ID, set to go into effect in 2016, is just part of the law. Other provisions, besides those affected by last week’s ruling, include ending preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds, eliminating Sunday voting and straight-ticket voting and increasing the number of poll watchers who can challenge a voter’s eligibility—all of which, say voting-rights advocates, are designed to suppress voter turnout among black and Latino voters, students and, in some cases, senior citizens.
In North Carolina, African-American voters are far more likely to lack accepted forms of photo ID and have traditionally taken greater advantage of Sunday voting and same-day registration options. At a CEO forum in North Carolina last year attended by Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, Gen. Colin Powell, himself a Republican and the nation’s first African-American secretary of state, criticized the legislation, saying, “These kinds of actions do not build on the base.” And they could present a challenge as the Republican Party tries to broaden its appeal in an increasingly diverse country.
Orlando Watson, the Republican National Committee’s communications director for African-American media, pushed back on that charge, telling The Root, “There is no impact on our North Carolina black voter-engagement efforts when we arm voters with the facts, including the importance of voter integrity, and then let them decide for themselves.”
With just a month to go before the midterms, both parties realize how much the various courts’ decisions matter. And the Supreme Court’s decision is expected at any time. In North Carolina, one particular contest could determine control of the U.S. Senate. Incumbent first-term Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, and her Republican opponent, Thom Tillis, the current speaker of the state House of Representatives, which passed the voting bill, meet for their second debate Tuesday. Reacting in a joint statement to last week’s court ruling, Tillis and state Senate leader Phil Berger saw a silver lining: “We are pleased the court upheld the lion’s share of commonsense reforms that bring North Carolina in line with a majority of other states, including the implementation of a popular voter-ID requirement.”
For her part, Hagan’s statement, approving of the decision, said, in part: “Same-day registration is a commonsense practice that can be used to increase voter participation in our democracy, which should be the goal of every elected official.”
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.