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Federal Appeals Court Blocks Two Changes to NC Election Laws

RALEIGH, N.C. — A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that two provisions of North Carolina's controversial 2013 elections law cannot be enforced during the November election. 

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a preliminary injunction against provisions that eliminated same-day registration during the early voting period and that prevented ballots cast outside of a voter's precinct from being counted.

The court, which heard arguments in the case last week in Charlotte, said other provisions of the law, such as reducing early voting from 17 to 10 days and the ability for county boards of elections to keep polls open late on Election Day to accommodate crowds or deal with voting problems, would remain in effect.

A coalition of groups, including the League of Women Voters and the NAACP, have challenged the more than two dozen changes to voting laws approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly last year. The groups say the changes are designed to suppress turnout at the polls among minorities, the elderly and college students – blocs considered more likely to vote for Democrats.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas D. Schroeder in August denied a preliminary injunction in the case, ruling that the groups failed to show they would suffer "irreparable harm."

In a 2-1 ruling, however, the appeals court ruled that Schroeder "got the law plainly wrong in several crucial respects," referring to the Voting Rights Act, and then abused his discretion in denying an injunction.

"In refusing to consider the elimination of voting mechanisms successful in fostering minority participation, the district court misapprehended and misapplied Section 2 (of the Voting Rights Act)," Judge James Wynn wrote for the majority regarding the elimination of same-day registration. "By inspecting the different parts of House Bill 589 as if they existed in a vacuum, the district court failed to consider the sum of those parts and their cumulative effect on minority access to the ballot box."

Regarding out-of-precinct voting, the court ruled that Schroeder was wrong to base his decision on the small number of such votes cast in previous elections.

"Setting aside the basic truth that even one disenfranchised voter – let alone several thousand – is too many, what matters for purposes of Section 2 is not how many minority voters are being denied equal electoral opportunities but simply that any minority voter is being denied equal electoral opportunities," Wynn wrote.

Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote in her dissent that, while she was troubled by portions of Schroeder's ruling, an injunction shouldn't be granted so close to the Nov. 4 election.

"Election day is less than five weeks away, and other deadlines loom even closer. In fact, for the many North Carolina voters that have already submitted absentee ballots, this election is already underway," Motz wrote. "The majority’s grant of injunctive relief requires boards of elections in North Carolina’s 100 counties to offer same-day registration during the early voting period and count out-of-precinct provisional ballots – practices for which neither the state nor the local boards have prepared.

"In addition to the burden it places on the state, an about-face at this juncture runs the very real risk of confusing voters who will receive incorrect and conflicting information about when and how they can register and cast their ballots," she continued.

Kim Westbrook Strach, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, echoed those concerns.

"Changes so close to the election may contribute to voter confusion,” Strach said in a statement. “More than 4 million voter guides have gone to the public with information contrary to today’s decision.”

Gov. Pat McCrory, House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said the decision would be quickly appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. All three men hired outside attorneys to work on challenges to the elections law last year after Attorney General Roy Cooper expressed reservations about the law. The Attorney General's Office is still working on the case, however.

"I have instructed our attorneys to appeal to the Supreme Court so that the two provisions rejected today can apply in the future and protect the integrity of our elections," McCrory said in a statement.

"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 supported by nearly three-quarters of North Carolinians," Tillis and Berger said in a statement.

Voting-rights groups also hailed the decision, but for different reasons.

"The evidence clearly showed that, under North Carolina’s voter suppression law, African-Americans would have faced higher barriers to the ballot this November," Rev. William Barber, state president of the NAACP, said in a statement. "The court took an important step to ensure that this election will remain free, fair and accessible to all North Carolina voters."

"The court's order safeguards the vote for tens of thousands of North Carolinians. It means they will continue to be able to use same-day registration, just as they have during the last three federal elections," Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, said in a statement.

"This is a victory for voters in the state of North Carolina,” Southern Coalition for Social Justice staff attorney Allison Riggs said in a statement. "The court has rebuked attempts to undermine voter participation."