RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Friday blocked a North Carolina law that required voters to produce photo identification and follow other rules disproportionately affecting minorities, finding that the law was intended to make it harder for blacks to vote in the presidential battleground state.
The Virginia-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals declared that the measures violated the Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act by targeting black voters “with almost surgical precision.” It marks the third ruling in less than two weeks against voter ID laws after court decisions regarding Texas and Wisconsin.
Friday’s opinion from a three-judge panel of the court states that “the legislature enacted one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history” when it rewrote voting laws in 2013.
The appeals judges also criticized the reasoning of a lower court that upheld the North Carolina law in April.
“In holding that the legislature did not enact the challenged provisions with discriminatory intent, the court seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees,” the panel wrote in its opinion.
Opponents of the law say the ruling should increase participation by black and Hispanic voters on Election Day in the state that also has closely contested races for U.S. Senate and governor. The U.S. Justice Department, state NAACP and League of Women Voters were among those who sued over the restrictions.
“This is a strong rebuke to what the North Carolina General Assembly did in 2013. It’s a powerful precedent that … federal courts will protect voting rights of voters of color,” said Allison Riggs, who served as the League of Women Voters’ lead lawyer.
The Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter of the NAACP, said in an interview that the ruling was a powerful victory for civil rights and for democracy.
“It is a vindication of our constitutional and moral critique and challenge to the constitutional extremism of our government,” he said.
North Carolina legislative leaders said they would appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court and blasted the judges as “three partisan Democrats.”
“We can only wonder if the intent is to reopen the door for voter fraud, potentially allowing fellow Democrat politicians … to steal the election,” state Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, both Republicans, said in a statement.
However, it’s unlikely that the evenly divided and short-handed Supreme Court would take the case or block Friday’s ruling from governing elections this November, said election-law experts Ned Foley of Ohio State University and Richard Hasen of the University of California at Irvine.
And the appeals court dismissed arguments that the law was aimed at preventing voter fraud.
“Although the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision, they constitute inapt remedies for the problems assertedly justifying them and, in fact, impose cures for problems that did not exist,” the opinion states.
Earlier this month, a federal appeals court ruled that Texas’ strict voter ID law discriminates against minorities and must be weakened before the November elections. That followed a ruling by a federal judge in Wisconsin that residents without a photo ID in that state will still be allowed to vote in November.
Hasen said the North Carolina and Texas cases were taken on by the Obama Justice Department as a bulwark against state voting restrictions.
“If North Carolina and Texas could get away with these voting restrictions, it would have been a green light for other states to do so,” he said. “I think this is a hugely important decision.”
North Carolina’s voting laws were rewritten in 2013 by the General Assembly two years after Republicans took control of both legislative chambers for the first time in a century. It was also shortly after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling changed the requirement that many Southern states receive federal approval before changing voting laws.
The voter ID mandate, which took effect with this year’s March primary, required voters to show one of six qualifying IDs, although voters facing “reasonable impediments” could fill out a form and cast a provisional ballot.
North Carolina legislators made the photo ID requirement for in-person ballots, curtailed the early voting period and eliminated same-day registration and voters’ ability to cast out-of-precinct provisional ballots in their home counties.
The appeals court said data showed that these methods were used disproportionately by black voters, who also were more likely to lack a qualifying ID, and it ruled to block these contested provisions of the law.
The judges wrote that in the years before the North Carolina law took effect, registration and participation by black voters had been dramatically increasing.
“We recognize that elections have consequences, but winning an election does not empower anyone in any party to engage in purposeful racial discrimination,” the panel said. “When a legislature dominated by one party has dismantled barriers to African American access to the franchise, even if done to gain votes, ‘politics as usual’ does not allow a legislature dominated by the other party to re-erect those barriers.”
Associated Press writers Martha Waggoner in Raleigh and Mark Sherman in Washington contributed to this report.