In a close Supreme Court decision the justices voted (4-to-4) against reinstating North Carolina’s identification requirement, meaning voters won’t have to show one of several qualifying photo IDs when casting ballots in the battleground state this November and early voting reverts to 17 days. With the decision coming so closely after the Fourth Circuit just struck down the voting laws, a question lingers in the air: What will it take for the conservative bloc on the high court to vote against voter ID laws?
This summer has seen a cascade of rulings from several states overturning or softening voter restrictions, from Wisconsin to Texas to North Dakota. With almost exactly two months to the presidential election, many of these rulings are throwing whole protocols into wack. And North Carolina is no exception.
Approved more than three years ago, North Carolina’s voting restrictions called for specific qualifying IDs to be presented when voters were casting ballots. Early, mail-in voting was also reduced from 17-days to only ten, while preregistration that allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to indicate an intent to register when they turn 18 was nixed.
But in July the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down several parts of the law, stating they were approved by Republican legislators in 2013 with intentional bias against black voters. In their ruling the Fourth Circuit panel specifically condemned the provisions that seemed to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision,” effectively taking away their “opportunity [to vote] because [they] were about to exercise it.”
Lawyers for Gov. Pat McCrory and state officials disagreed with the ruling and sought a delay while they drafted an appeal. But on Wednesday, in an even split, the Supreme Court denied that request. That means North Carolina will now be scrambling to find county and election officials to help organize seven extra days of coverage and a revision of ID protocols before the November election.
For the rest of the country, however, it’s a look into just how deeply entrenched the Supreme Court has become in politics. The Fourth Circuit made a lot of hay over the fact that the law in question was enacted with racially discriminatory intent, given that black voters in North Carolina disproportionately lack a photo ID and vote Democrat. Additionally the court found that Democrats historically favor using early voting. While the Fourth Circuit didn’t go as far as to say that the North Carolina’s legislature was inherently racist, it did draw a clear, bright line between their racial profiling and unconstitutional voter restrictions.
“Our conclusion does not mean, and we do not suggest, that any member of the General Assembly harbored racial hatred or animosity toward any minority group. But the totality of the circumstances—North Carolina’s history of voting discrimination; the surge in African American voting; the legislature’s knowledge that African Americans voting translated into support for one party; and the swift elimination of the tools African Americans had used to vote and imposition of a new barrier at the first opportunity to do so—cumulatively and unmistakably reveal that the General Assembly used SL 2013-381 to entrench itself. It did so by targeting voters who, based on race, were unlikely to vote for the majority party. Even if done for partisan ends, that constituted racial discrimination,” stated the Fourth Circuit opinion.
While only Justice Clarence Thomas wanted to grant the stay in its entirety, it seems troubling that the conservative justices on the bench still saw something that could be rectified here. Especially given the overwhelming evidence that “voter fraud” is rarely, if ever, an occurrence in most areas. In the infrequent event voter fraud does happen, laws like North Carolina’s often wouldn’t even have made a difference.
“While Republicans, the principal advocates of the law, justify it to prevent voter fraud, there is little evidence to support actual voter fraud and the corresponding need for the Act – only four fraud convictions over the last 8 years, none of which would have been prevented by the new law,” the PA Trial Practice Blog wrote in a 2012 about a similar law enacted in Pennsylvania. “Instead, the law may be politically motivated in favor of Republicans and may disproportionately affect Democratic, poor, minority, older, and younger voters, and lead to voter suppression. Indeed, state representative Mike Turzai, the Pennsylvania House Majority Leader was quoted in July, 2012 as saying: ‘Voter ID – which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the State of Pennsylvania – done.’”
While the conservatives and liberals on the Supreme Court have camped out their voter ID preferences before, the North Carolina case seems to be the clearest example of blatant racially-biased gerrymandering yet. That the high court happens to be (perpetually and politically) down one member that prevented a majority without someone crossing sides makes this an astonishingly close call for voters-rights activists. But it really shouldn’t be. In the face of a ruling that laid out, with precision, how various intentionally discriminatory actions of the state’s legislature were, staying provisions that a Circuit Court found unconstitutional should be a no-brainer.
Ultimately the North Carolina voter fraud laws reinforce a lot of established narratives about the state of our country right now: How partisan politics has become; how routine racial bias can be; how oppositional the highest court in the land can be, still batting with an incomplete lineup. At least this now everyone will get to vote their opinion about how to change that.