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Inside The Case: Why Federal Appeals Court Struck Down NC Voting Changes

Erik (HASH) Hersman

Judges one step below the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Friday the major parts of North Carolina's 2013 election overhaul are unconstitutional. The federal appeals court ruled that Republican state lawmakers restricted voting and registration in five different ways, all of which disproportionately affected African-Americans. WFAE's Michael Tomsic has been covering this case for three years and joined Mark Rumsey to discuss.

Michael, walk us through the ruling. 

A three-judge panel concluded unanimously that Republican lawmakers passed the changes with discriminatory intent. Judge Diana GribbonMotz wrote the opinion. She notes that lawmakers had data showing the racial impact, and she says they targeted African-Americans with "almost surgical precision."

Remind us what the five changes were.

-Reducing the early voting period by a week.

-Eliminating same-day registration, out-of-precinct voting and preregistration of high schoolers.

-And creating a photo ID requirement.

The lower court judge in Winston-Salem upheld those changes. He noted they put North Carolina's election procedures in line with most other states. How did the appeals judges address his arguments?

They commended Judge Thomas Schroeder for the thoroughness of his record, but they say he "seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees."

For example, Judge Schroeder laid out how African-Americans disproportionately used the things that were reduced or eliminated, and they disproportionately lacked IDs. But he pointed out the majority of states have policies similar to what remained in North Carolina.

The appeals court judges responded that the sheer number of restrictions in this one law sets it apart. And they say removing voting tools African-Americans rely on is meaningfully different from not having those tools in the first place. 

The lower court judge also noted that African-American turnout increased in the 2014 midterm, which was after the bulk of the changes. What did the appeals judges say about that?

They say he gave too much weight to that one election, especially since the increase was less than 2 percent. And they point out that number is actually a significant decrease in the rate of change – African-American turnout had increased 12 percent in the prior four-year period.

They also used strong language about disenfranchisement. The U.S. Justice Department, the League of Women Voters and others suing presented broad data and personal testimony of people who couldn't vote in 2014 because same-day registration was no longer an option. Based on that, the federal appeals court ruling says "thousands of African-Americans were disenfranchised" because of that change.

The ruling also had some strong language about how race and politics intersect in North Carolina. What stood out to you there?

How explicit the judges were about it. They laid out how because of demographic voting patterns, restricting mechanisms that most heavily affect African-Americans benefits the GOP at the expense of Democrats. They say that's clearly what happened here: "That cannot be accepted where politics as usual translates into race-based discrimination."

The timing of the changes was also a big part of the argument, with the Justice Department saying lawmakers rushed them through after a major Supreme Court decision. How did the appeals judges address that?

They call it a compelling piece of the puzzle. The election overhaul actually started as a small bill focused on voter ID. But after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act meant to protect minorities, North Carolina and other places with a history of discrimination no longer needed federal approval before changing election policies.

The day after that decision, a powerful North Carolina lawmaker said now we can move ahead with the "full bill." When it came out at the end of the legislative session, it was a massive departure from the original bill, with a wide variety of election changes and an even stricter ID requirement. The appeals court judges described it as "the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow." 

You just mentioned how that Supreme Court decision meant North Carolina no longer needed federal approval of election changes. The U.S. Justice Department asked for that to be reinstated as part of this lawsuit. Did it get its wish?

It did not. In voting legalese, that's called preclearance. The appeals judges stopped short of reinstating it, saying that's a remedy that is rarely used and not necessary here in light of the ruling.

So what does this mean for November?

Essentially, our election policies go back to what they were in 2012.

-You will not need an ID to vote.

-There will be 17 days of early voting, starting on October 20.

-People will be able to register and vote on the same day during that period.

-People who vote on Election Day will still have their vote counted if they do it in the wrong precinct, as long as it's the right county.

-The DMV will once again offer 16- and 17-year-olds preregistration so they're all set once they turn 18. 

Of course, that assumes there is not another ruling.

Right, and there could be one by November. State lawmakers say they'll appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mark Rumsey grew up in Kansas and got his first radio job at age 17 in the town of Abilene, where he announced easy-listening music played from vinyl record albums.