RALEIGH — A federal appeals court on Friday blocked a North Carolina law that required voters to produce photo identification and included other provisions disproportionately affecting black voters, with the judges ruling the law was enacted “with discriminatory intent.”
Opponents of the law say the ruling should increase participation by black and Hispanic voters on Election Day in the presidential battleground state, which also has closely contested races for U.S. Senate and governor.
The decision 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 Virginia-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reverses a lower-court’s decision upholding the North Carolina law.
“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.
The opinion later states that “the legislature enacted one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history.”
Ed Henderson, chairman of Robeson County’s Democratic Party, applauded the court’s decision.
“Supporters of the photo ID requirement say it will prevent voter fraud, but I don’t think there is enough fraud to warrant such a law,” Henderson said. “I don’t think there is much fraud in Robeson County. At least I haven’t seen it. No one has pinpointed any cases. People every year talk about fraud, but there is never evidence of any cases. Until there is enough information we shouldn’t have such a law.”
The court’s decision didn’t come as a surprise to John McNeill, mayor of Red Springs and former Robeson County Democratic Party chairman.
“It’s obvious the law was passed to discourage those groups that have a higher tendency to vote Democratic,” McNeill said. “This was a conceived plan to prevent Democrats from voting.”
Steve Stone, a Republican and chairman of the Robeson County Board of Elections, is a strong supporter of the photo ID requirement, which he said “protects everyone’s vote.”
“Without question photo ID would be efficient, effective and fair,” he said. “It was a step in the right direction. It helped eliminate probable fraud.”
Stone has said on numerous occasions during his years in Robeson County politics, he has observed cases of voter fraud and other election law violations.
“I think we will see some photo ID requirement in the future,” Stone said. “I don’t know how we will get along without it.”
Phillip Stephens, Robeson County’s Republican leader, said that it has been “established and proven” that voter fraud exists in Robeson County and that requiring an ID at the polls is a means to battle it.
“Photo ID is allowed and has been upheld in other states,” Stephens said. “What is different here in North Carolina?”
The U.S. Justice Department, state NAACP, League of Women Voters and others had sued North Carolina, saying the restrictions violated the federal Voting Rights Act and the Constitution.
“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 on the case.
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.
Messages seeking comment weren’t immediately returned by the state’s Republican governor or legislative leaders.
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.
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.
Staff writer Bob Shiles and Associated Press writers Martha Waggoner and Mark Sherman contributed to this report.