North Carolina's sweeping and controversial election reform law, HB 589, was upheld on Monday by a federal judge in Winston-Salem, prompting vows to appeal from the plaintiffs who allege that the legislation's dramatic voting restrictions widely disenfranchise minority voters.
"The sweeping barriers imposed by this law undermine voter participation and have an overwhelmingly discriminatory impact on African-Americans. This ruling does not change that reality. We are already examining an appeal," said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, in a statement.
Judge Thomas Schroeder, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote (pdf) that the law's controversial cutbacks on early voting, elimination of same-day registration and pre-registration for 17-year-olds, and notoriously strict voter ID requirement served a "legitimate state interest" by attempting to "detect and deter fraud."
The hefty 485-page decision upheld all parts of the controversial law. The Guardian describes Schroeder's rationale for his decision:
While North Carolina had a sordid history of freezing black voters out of the political process, Schroeder said, the plaintiffs did not show that the law hampered the ability of minority voters to exercise electoral politics.
The plaintiffs "failed to show that such disparities will have materially adverse effects on the ability of minority voters to cast a ballot and effectively exercise the electoral franchise" as a result of the 2013 state law, the judge wrote. That argument was made more difficult after black voter turnout increased in 2014, he added.
"There is significant, shameful past discrimination. In North Carolina’s recent history, however, certainly for the last quarter century, there is little official discrimination to consider," Schroeder wrote.
"This is our Selma," proclaimed the Rev. William J. Barber II when the lawsuit was first filed in July 2015, as Common Dreams reported. Barber is a founder of the Moral Mondays movement and president of the North Carolina NAACP, which launched the suit against the state.
This particular battle is being watched closely by activists and legal experts nationwide, as it is one of the first tests to a restrictive election reform law passed by a conservative legislature in the wake of the Supreme Court's dismantling of key portions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. The issue is particularly pressing now, as there are mere months to go before the general election in November.
The Brennan Center for Justice reports that a full 22 states have put new voting restrictions into effect since 2010.
"This is part of a broader movement to curtail voting rights, which began after the 2010 election, when state lawmakers nationwide started introducing hundreds of harsh measures making it harder to vote," the nonpartisan law and policy institute notes.
"This ruling further affirms that requiring a photo ID in order to vote is not only common sense, it's constitutional," Republican Gov. Pat McCrory pushed back at voting rights activists in a statement. McCrory is also currently combating heated criticism nationwide for signing the state's repressive "hate bill" that mandates discrimination against LGBTQ people.
David Graham in The Atlantic describes the potential legal battle ahead, and the ramifications the law may have on the upcoming November elections:
North Carolina's rollback is one of the most dramatic in the nation, and if it stands, it's expected to serve as a model for other conservative legislatures to pass similarly strict laws. That’s one reason both sides have put so much emphasis on the fight in North Carolina. [...] Many observers expect that regardless of the result at the appeals court, the case will end up at the Supreme Court. The death of Justice Antonin Scalia—and uncertainty over whether Merrick Garland, President Obama's pick for the vacancy, will be confirmed—makes it tough to predict the result there.
The plaintiffs hope to get an appeal in process in time to get a ruling ahead of November's election, or at least to have the law put on hold. It's not clear whether the courts can and will move fast enough. That means that while HB 589 may have a lasting national legacy, it might also play a role in this year’s election. McCrory is in a tight race for reelection against state Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat. Meanwhile, the chaotic Republican race has put the Old North State in play in the presidential race as well. The state voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, but demographic changes make North Carolina a potential swing state. And even if the law causes only a small variation in turnout, that could have a big impact on the result: When Barack Obama carried North Carolina in 2008, he did so by just 0.32 percent.
"Through widespread actions, rallies, marches and protests, we have said all along that we would accept no less than unabridged access to the ballot for all eligible voters," Barber told the New York Times after Monday's ruling.
"Just like those who carried on before us," Barber continued, "we will continue our movement challenging regressive and discriminatory voter suppression tactics on behalf of African-Americans, Latinos, seniors, students and all those for whom democracy has been denied."