The U.S. Supreme Court reinstated voting restrictions in North Carolina on Wednesday, issuing an order that will prohibit voters from same-day registration and casting their ballots out of precinct—a law that a federal appeals court had previously overturned on the grounds that it discriminated against voters, particularly the elderly, minorities, and those living in underserved communities.
Civil liberty and voting rights advocates expressed outrage at the court's decision.
"They tried to focus this on voter ID, but that’s not what this is about," North Carolina NAACP president Rev. Dr. William J. Barber said in a news conference on Thursday. "This has everything to do with voter suppression."
"More than 70 percent of African-American voters utilized early voting during the 2008 and 2012 general elections," the ACLU Voting Rights project said in a statement after the ruling, noting that the extra time allows for flexibility with work schedules and eases the burden of finding transportation to polling places. "For many voters, the choice is between early voting or not voting at all," ACLU said, adding, "This is particularly critical for low-income voters, who are more likely to have hourly-wage jobs that don’t afford them the time to get to the polls on Election Day or during common work hours."
The order (pdf), which was brief and unsigned, did not detail the reasoning behind reinstating the restrictions, but Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Sonia Sotomayor were the lone dissenting voices.
"The Court of Appeals determined that at least two of the measures—elimination of same-day registration and termination of out-of-precinct voting—risked significantly reducing opportunities for black voters to exercise the franchise in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act," Ginsburg wrote. "I would not displace that record-based reasoned judgment."
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a provision of the act that required states to get approval from the Justice Department for proposed election rules to ensure that minorities were not harmed by them. North Carolina passed their voting laws almost immediately after the decision; had the provision still been in place, those two restrictions "likely would not have survived federal preclearance," Ginsburg added.
The state’s political atmosphere has been contentious this year, as a tight race between Sen. Kay Hagan (D) and her challenger, Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis, has the candidates neck-and-neck in the polls as election day nears. The outcome could have a major impact on control of the Senate.
North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory (R) imposed a multitude of restrictions in 2013, including cutting a week off of the early voting period and requiring voters to present a government-issued photo ID at the polls—a measure that McCrory claimed was necessary to combat voter fraud, which rights groups like the Brennan Center for Justice have found to be "an occurrence more rare than getting struck by lightning."
"We are disappointed with the Supreme Court’s ruling today," Barber said in a statement after the decision. "Tens of thousands of North Carolina voters, especially African-American voters, have relied on same-day registration, as well as the counting of ballots that were cast out of precinct, for years."
The League of Women Voters said the state's voting laws "surgically eliminated the precise forms of registration and voting that had enabled significant expansion of African-Americans civic participation in North Carolina over the previous decade."
A recent study by the Government Accountability Office found that voter ID requirements in Kansas and Tennessee reduced turnout, particularly among young and black voters—two demographics that are more likely to vote Democrat.
Wednesday's decision is the second time in 10 days that the Court ruled to cut back voting rights as the midterm elections approach. On September 29, the court granted Ohio permission to block early voting just sixteen hours before polling stations were set to open.