by Kareem U. Crayton, associate professor of law, the University of North Carolina School of Law
Voting has been described by the Supreme Court as “preservative of other basic civil and political rights.” So when law and policy leave voting insecure, the core project of governance itself faces grave risk.
During oral arguments preceding the June 2013 decision to invalidate a key feature of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Justice Anthony Kennedy dismissed concerns that voting would become less secure for racial minorities. Even absent Section 5’s preclearance oversight for states with egregious histories of discrimination, Kennedy asserted, Section 2 of the law would allow citizens to use traditional litigation to block discriminatory laws. A year into the post-Shelby County era, we have initial evidence of how this litigation has fared in practice.
One test of Section 2 is playing out in North Carolina, where this week the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the North Carolina NAACP and allied groups in their challenge of a state law that is widely recognized as the nation’s most restrictive. The Court’s decision ordered a preliminary injunction for two provisions of the law – the elimination of same-day registration, and the prohibition of out-of-precinct ballots from being counted. The decision means that these rules will not apply in the November election, contrary to an earlier decision by a U.S. District Court to deny this preliminary injunction. A full trial regarding the merits of the law will go to court next July.
According to the 4th Circuit, “The district court got the law plainly wrong in several crucial respects" in assessing whether North Carolina’s measure, known as H.B. 589, was likely in violation of Section 2. They continued, "When the applicable law is properly understood and applied to the facts as the district court portrayed them, it becomes clear that the district court abused its discretion in denying plaintiffs a preliminary injunction and not preventing certain provisions of House Bill 589 from taking effect while the parties fight over the bill's legality."
North Carolina’s H.B. 589 enacts multiple changes to the state’s election system. It eliminates same-day voter registration, prohibits out-of-precinct ballots from being counted, shortens the early voting period by a week, eliminates a successful pre-registration program for 16- and 17-year-olds, prohibits counties from extending Election Day poll hours to account extraordinary circumstances (such as long lines), permits poll observers to challenge voters, and implements a strict photo ID requirement.