RALEIGH — A divided U.S. Supreme Court refused Wednesday to reinstate North Carolina’s voter identification requirement and allow it to offer just 10 days of early in-person voting.
The decision, a victory for voting rights groups and President Barack Obama’s Justice Department, means voters won’t have to show one of several qualifying photo IDs when casting ballots in the presidential battleground state. Early voting also reverts to 17 days, to begin Oct. 20.
The court rejected a request by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and other state officials to delay a lower court ruling that found the state law was tainted by racial discrimination.
“Hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians will now be able to vote without barriers,” Allison Riggs, an attorney representing some of the groups and voters who originally sued over the 2013 law, said in a statement.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down several parts of the law July 29, saying they were approved by Republican legislators in 2013 with intentional bias against black voters. Lawyers for McCrory and the state officials disagreed with the 4th Circuit ruling that there was “discriminatory intent” in passing the law and wanted a delay while they drafted an appeal.
The high court divided 4-4 on most of the challenged provisions, with the four more conservative justices supporting the state’s bid to enforce them in the upcoming election. The split illustrates again how closely divided the Supreme Court is on voting rights and how the outcome of the presidential election essentially will determine the court’s direction.
The court has been operating with only eight members since Justice Antonin Scalia died in February.
“If Justice Anthony Scalia was still alive North Carolina would have voter photo ID like other states have photo ID,” said Phillip Stephens, chair of Robeson County’s Republican Party. “This is yet another example of how important the November election is. This election is not just about the presidency. It is also about the future of the Supreme Court. It shows that the next president’s appointment, whether it be Hillary or Trump, is going to set the direction of the Supreme Court.”
McCrory, who signed the law, said in a statement that North Carolina “has been denied basic voting rights” by the decision and that “four liberal justices” had “blocked North Carolina protections afforded by our sensible voter laws.”
The voting adjustments could benefit Democrats in the November election, since registered Democrats historically have favored using early voting. Evidence presented during the trial over the 2013 law says black residents disproportionately lack photo ID. Black voters traditionally have voted overwhelmingly Democratic in North Carolina.
“I’m disappointed there is no form of photo ID required,” Steve Stone, chairman of the Robeson County Board of Elections, said. “I think it was instrumental in alleviating irregularities we’ve had in the past.”
Robeson County has had several elections ordered re-done by the state in recent years because of allegations of voter fraud. The November election for Pembroke mayor had to be redone because of confusion over where some voters live.
Attorneys who sued over the law — representing the U.S. government, the state NAACP, other groups and voters — told the justices keeping voter ID and the shortened early voting in place would irreparably harm minority voters.
About 900,000 people voted in North Carolina in the first week of a 17-day early voting period in the 2012 presidential election. Fifty-six percent of state voters in that election cast early in-person ballots.
Stone said the Robeson County Board of Elections has operated with a 17-day early voting period and without the photo ID requirement before and can do it again.
“We can’t put our feelings into it. We have to operate the way the court tells us. We have to, and will operate, following the letter of the law.”
State NAACP President Rev. William Barber declared the ruling “another major victory for justice” that allows people to vote without “expansive restrictions by racist politicians or racist policies.”
Voter ID was required during primary elections this year and 10 days of early voting had been in place since 2014.
McCrory and Republican legislative leaders have said voter ID is a sound requirement to increase the integrity of elections. Appeals court judges said the state provided no evidence of the kind of in-person voter fraud the ID mandate would address. The law was amended last year to include a method for people unable to get a photo ID to still vote.
Ed Henderson, chair of the Robeson County Democratic Party, couldn’t be reached today but applauded the lower court’s ruling in July.
“People every year talk about fraud,” he said, “but there is never evidence of any cases. Until there is enough information we shouldn’t have such a law.”
Associated Press writers Sam Hananel and Mark Sherman and staff writer Bob Shiles contributed to this report.