Three months after the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina ruled that North Carolina’s voter identification law did not place unconstitutional barriers between residents and the voting booth, an appeals court has overturned that decision.
On Friday (July 29), the three-judge panel for the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit unanimously decided that the law not only violated the Constitution, but that it specifically sought to abridge the rights of African Americans. From the decision, written by Judge Diana Gribbon Motz:
…The evidence in this case establishes that, at least in part, race motivated the North Carolina legislature. Thus, we do not ask whether the State has an interest in preventing voter fraud—it does—or whether a photo ID requirement constitutes one way to serve that interest—it may—but whether the legislature would have enacted SL 2013-381’s photo ID requirement if it had no disproportionate impact on African American voters. The record evidence establishes that it would not have….
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. This failure of perspective led the court to ignore critical facts bearing on legislative intent, including the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina….
In Gingles and other cases brought under the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court has explained that polarization renders minority voters uniquely vulnerable to the inevitable tendency of elected officials to entrench themselves by targeting groups unlikely to vote for them. In North Carolina, restriction of voting mechanisms and procedures that most heavily affect African Americans will predictably redound to the benefit of one political party and to the disadvantage of the other. As the evidence in the record makes clear, that is what happened here….
In response to claims that intentional racial discrimination animated its action, the State offered only meager justifications. 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. “In essence,” as in League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry (LULAC), 548 U.S. 399, 440 (2006), “the State took away [minority voters’] opportunity because [they] were about to exercise it.” As in LULAC, “[t]his bears the mark of intentional discrimination.”
Faced with this record, we can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the district court to the contrary and remand with instructions to enjoin the challenged provisions of the law.
The panel also identified what The Washington Post calls a smoking gun in the case:
After years of preclearance and expansion of voting access, by 2013 African American registration and turnout rates had finally reached near-parity with white registration and turnout rates. African Americans were poised to act as a major electoral force. But, on the day after the Supreme Court issued Shelby County v. Holder, 133 S. Ct. 2612 (2013), eliminating preclearance obligations, a leader of the party that newly dominated the legislature (and the party that rarely enjoyed African-American support) announced an intention to enact what he characterized as an “omnibus” election law. Before enacting that law, the legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices. Upon receipt of the race data, the General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration in five different ways, all of which disproportionately affected African Americans.
The original suit was lead by the U.S. Department of Justice, the North Carolina Conference of the NAACP and the League of Women Voters of North Carolina. It challenged the 2013 law—which is widely held to be one of the most restrictive in the nation—arguing that it stood in violation of the 14th and 26th Amendments as well as the Voting Rights Act with the specific purpose of disenfranchising the Black citizens of the state whom studies show are less likely to have the narrowly defined identification that is required to cast their votes. The law also prohibited same-day registration, reduced early voting access, voided out-of-precinct voting and barred teens from registering ahead of their 18th birthdays.
“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,’” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement. “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 North Carolina Conference of the NAACP—headed by Rev. Dr. William Barber of DNC fame—also applauded the decision:
NC NAACP (@ncnaacp) July 29, 2016
The state’s Republican party leaders Phil Berger and Tim Moore were less than pleased with the ruling, per this statement:
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.
One of the most comprehensive studies on the subject found only 31 individual cases of voter impersonation out of more than 1 billion votes cast in the United States since the year 2000. Researchers have found that reports of voter fraud are roughly as common as reports of alien abduction.
Friday’s ruling, taken along with decisions in Wisconsin and Texas, could prompt attorneys to ask the Supreme Court to take emergency action to rule on the topic of voter identification laws nationwide ahead of this fall’s election.