In Blistering Opinion, 4th Cir. Overturns N.C. Voter ID Law

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on July 29, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Fourth Circuit overturned North Carolina's voter identification law this morning -- and it didn't pull any punches in doing so. In a blistering, strongly-worded opinion, the court found that the North Carolina legislature enacted the voter ID requirement and ended same-day voter registration and preregistration "with discriminatory intent."

It apparently didn't take the Fourth Circuit too long to reach these conclusions, either. The ruling comes just three months after a federal district court upheld the voting law and little over a month following oral arguments.

North Carolina's Voter ID Law

North Carolina adopted its voter ID law in 2013, almost immediately after the Supreme Court invalidated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which required federal preclearance for voting changes in many states, including North Carolina.

Under the law, voters would have to present photo ID in order to cast a ballot, though the bill was later relaxed to allow provisional affidavit ballots for those without ID. The new law also ended same-day voter registration, reduced early voting, and got rid of preregistration, where teens who will be 18 on Election Day can register to vote beforehand.

Critics accused the law's backers of attempting to reduce voter turnout in minority and Democratic communities, while supporters argued that the moves were needed to prevent voter fraud.

The Inextricable Link Between Race and Politics in North Carolina

The Fourth's opinion, written by Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, begins by commending the district court for its thoroughness in addressing the issues raised by North Carolina's law. But the court quickly changes tack. "In holding that the legislature did not enact the challenged provisions with discriminatory intent," the Fourth begins, "the court seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees," leading it to "ignore critical facts bearing on legislative intent, including the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina."

As the Fourth noted, North Carolina's moves to change their voting laws began the day after the Supreme Court eliminated the Voting Rights Act's preclearance obligations. And race wasn't far from their mind. "Before enacting that law," the court notes, "the legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices." Once that data was gathered, the General Assembly restricted voting and registration in multiple ways, "all of which disproportionately affected African Americans."

Indeed, the state had even justified some of the voting changes with direct references to race, saying that some county's voters were "disproportionately black" and "disproportionately Democratic." This is "what comes as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times," the court wrote.

The Fourth's ruling comes just months before November's presidential elections, in a battleground state that had previously seen record African American voter turnout.

It is the second high profile appellate ruling against voter ID laws in two weeks. Little over one week ago, the Fifth Circuit ruled en banc that Texas's voter ID law was discriminatory, but failed to go as far as the Fourth Circuit, sending the case back to district court to determine if Texas had acted with discriminatory intent.

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