Supreme Court Refuses to Restore North Carolina Voter ID Law

4-4 split seen as helping Democrats in key battleground state

A split Supreme Court left in place an appeals court ruling that blocked North Carolina's voter photo ID law. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A split Supreme Court left in place an appeals court ruling that blocked North Carolina's voter photo ID law. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 31, 2016 at 4:40pm

A divided Supreme Court on Wednesday refused to allow North Carolina’s voter photo ID law to be enforced during this fall’s elections — a decision likely to help Democrats in the important battleground state.

The justices split 4-4 on a request from the state’s Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and other GOP leaders in the state legislature to overturn a lower court opinion that blocked several provisions of the election law. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit found the state General Assembly had enacted provisions of the law with discriminatory intent.

[Appeals Court Halts North Carolina Voter ID Law]

The four justices of the court’s liberal wing voted against lifting that ruling and allowing the law’s provisions to be used for the Nov. 8 elections, but did not comment further on the case in a one-page order. The order also stops changes to North Carolina’s law that curtailed early voting, same-day registration, out-of-precinct voting and preregistration.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito Jr. would have lifted the 4th Circuit order except for a provision on preregistration. Justice Clarence Thomas would have lifted the block in its entirety.

Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February left the court with only eight members. 

The 4-4 split meant the lower court’s order remained. The 4th Circuit ruling highlighted how North Carolina’s law restricted procedures that heavily affect African-Americans — and benefited one political party to the disadvantage of the other.

The North Carolina General Assembly enacted the law in the wake of a 2013 Supreme Court decision that struck down a key enforcement provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That provision required such changes to be “precleared” by the Justice Department before implementation. Efforts to fix the law have stalled in Congress amid objections from Republicans who argue the landmark legislation still protects voters.

[‘No Vote, No Voice,’ Says Newly Formed Voting Rights Caucus]

North Carolina is one of a handful of swing states that could go either way in the presidential contest, depending on factors such as voter turnout. Barack Obama narrowly carried the state in 2008, while Mitt Romney won it by 3 points in 2012. Early voting in the state begins Oct. 20.

In a statement, McCrory called out the liberal justices for blocking “protections afforded by our sensible voter laws.”

North Carolina has been denied basic voting rights already granted to more than 30 other states to protect the integrity of one person, one vote through a common-sense voter ID law,” he said. 

But the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, welcomed the decision. 

“This critical rejection of the state’s position will allow the people of North Carolina to exercise the fundamental right to vote this November without expansive restrictions by racist politicians or racist policies,” Barber said.

“We urge the state of North Carolina and Gov. [Pat] McCrory to accept — as the Supreme Court has affirmed today — that racially discriminatory laws have no place at the ballot box,” he said.