News: CJ Exclusives

Supreme Court Disallows Same-Day Registration, Out-of-Precinct Voting

Justices place hold on appeals court order; voters must register by Friday

North Carolina’s 2014 general election will take place under the election laws enacted last year by the General Assembly as the result of a ruling late Wednesday by the U.S. Supreme Court.

A majority of the justices agreed to halt an Oct. 1 order from the 4th U.S. Circuit of Appeals that would have blocked two aspects of the North Carolina law from taking effect in the current election cycle: a ban on voter registration during the early voting period, and a provision invalidating ballots cast by voters in a precinct where they do not live. The stay means that Friday is the final day voters can register for the November election, and registered voters who vote on Nov. 4 must cast their ballots in their home precinct.

Other provisions of the law were not affected by the appeals court ruling, including the requirement that in 2016 voters present a state-approved identity card. However, the law does require elections officials to remind voters of the upcoming requirement when they go to the polls during early voting and in November.

The law has been challenged by a number of parties, including the N.C. State Conference of the NAACP and the ACLU of North Carolina. Both the plantiffs and the state have agreed on an expedited review process, with a trial on the merits of the law scheduled for next year.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who last year signed the bill into law, praised the high court’s ruling.

“I am pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court has ensured this popular and common sense bill will apply to the upcoming election,” McCrory said in a statement. “We respect the legal process and thank the Supreme Court justices for protecting the integrity of our elections.”

The two top Republican legislative leaders, House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, issued a joint statement also lauding the decision.

“Today, in bipartisan fashion, our nation’s highest court affirmed North Carolina’s election reform law by allowing it to move forward for next month’s elections,” Tillis and Berger said. “The court’s ruling restores the clarity and certainty to the election process that has been in place since the May primary and was disrupted at the 11th hour. These commonsense reforms will help support voter integrity in North Carolina while protecting every citizen’s constitutional right to vote.”

The Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, decried the high court’s stay.

“We are disappointed with the Supreme Court’s ruling today,” Barber said Wednesday in a statement. “Tens of thousands of North Carolina voters, especially African-American voters, have relied on same-day registration, as well as the counting of ballots that were cast out of precinct, for years. As the appeals court correctly concluded, eliminating these measures will cause irreparable harm of denying citizens their right to vote in the November election — a right that, once lost, can never be recovered.”

Barber said his organization would continue to work to make sure every vote is counted “despite the barriers posed by the Supreme Court’s ruling.”

The ACLU also criticized the decision.

“Thousands of North Carolinians will be left out of the upcoming election,” said Dale Ho, director of the organization’s Voting Rights Project, in a statement. “More than 20,000 North Carolina voters used same-day registration in the last midterm election. While this order is not a final ruling on the merits, it does allow a law that undermines voter participation to be in effect as this case makes its way through the courts.”

The appeals court’s 2-1 decision sent the State Board of Elections scurrying to find ways to implement the ruling as defendants in the election law lawsuit appealed the order to the Supreme Court.

Kim Westbrook Strach, executive director of the State Board of Elections, reminded voters that the voter registration deadline is approaching quickly.

“Please encourage those in your community to register by Friday and to vote in the proper precinct on Election Day,” Strach said in a statement. “We hope voters will make use of the record-setting number of early voting sites, beginning Oct. 23.”

The Supreme Court decision is a ruling on preliminary motions, and not a decision on the merits of the lawsuit itself. It is unclear if more than five justices supported the unsigned order, but it had two dissenters, associate justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.