Appeals court hears voter suppression case
CHARLOTTE (AP) — With Election Day just weeks away, a federal appeals court heard arguments Thursday in a case challenging a new North Carolina voting law that critics say will suppress minority voter turnout in November.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is considering whether the November elections can be held under the voting law approved last year by Republican lawmakers.
Attorneys for a coalition of civil rights and voting-advocacy groups asked the three-judge panel to issue a preliminary injunction that would hold the November vote under the old rules.
They said continued implementation of several provisions in the new law will disproportionately affect black voters who have benefited from the wider opportunities to register and to vote.
But Alexander Peters, the state’s senior deputy attorney general, said changing the rules so close to the election would cause voter confusion. He noted that absentee ballots were mailed Sept. 5.
“The election has already started,” he said.
The judges didn’t say when they would rule on the injunction, but it could have an impact on the election. Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan is facing a tough re-election bid against Republican challenger Thom Tillis. The GOP has long listed North Carolina as a top target to help win back the Senate.
In August, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder denied a motion seeking to hold the election under the old rules, saying the groups failed to show they would suffer “irreparable harm” under the new rules.
The plaintiffs appealed Schroeder’s ruling.
The 2013 law is considered among the most stringent in the nation.
The provisions, already used in the May primary, eliminated same-day registration during early voting, reduced the early-voting period by a week and eliminated the counting of ballots cast on election day outside of a person’s home precinct. Voters also are being told at the polls to prepare for a photo-identification requirement in 2016. Political parties also can send in more observers to monitor voting.
The GOP-controlled state legislature, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and other supporters said the law was needed to combat in-person voter fraud, which they said is rampant in the state — despite only a handful of confirmed cases in recent years.
The coalition, including the League of Women Voters and the state NAACP, filed three lawsuits challenging the changes. The lawsuits have since been combined into a single case.
Lawyers for the groups have argued 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.
They made some of those arguments during Thursday’s hearing.
Allison Riggs, a staff attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said the sweeping overhaul of the state’s voting law will cause irreparable harm if left in place for the November elections.
But Thomas Farr, one of the lawyers representing the state, said the provisions didn’t hinder minority voting in the May primary, saying nothing “horrible” had happened.
Peters told the judges that an injunction would be a burden for the state. The state has already mailed a 30-page pamphlet to households and would have to “re-educate” voters and “let them know the new rules with the election underway.”
But Judge Henry Floyd responded: “Where’s the harm? Does an administrative burden trump a constitutional right?”
Attorneys for the state argued there were other potential problems: Boards of elections had disabled old voting systems, and would have to count same-day voter registrations by hand. They also were afraid of long lines at polling places with people showing up at the wrong precincts.
But Judge James Wynn questioned whether those were really burdens. He said with technology, those problems could be solved.
“How come the state of North Carolina doesn’t want people to vote?” he asked.