RALEIGH — A federal judge on Friday ordered elections boards in three North Carolina counties to restore voter registrations canceled too close to Election Day after the NAACP sued over thousands of the challenges.
U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs issued the ruling after an emergency hearing earlier in the week on NAACP allegations that at least three counties purged voter rolls through a process disproportionately targeting blacks.
Biggs said the local elections boards must “take all steps necessary” to restore voter registrations canceled during the 90 days preceding Election Day on Tuesday.
Early voting ends Saturday in the critical swing state, which the NAACP has previously sued over other voter access issues.
The voters’ names were removed through challenges filed by activists, which the NAACP said was illegal under federal law because of the proximity to the election.
The NAACP sued over the challenges filed in Cumberland, Moore and Beaufort counties. Challengers include volunteers with the Voter Integrity Project, which says it wants to guard against voter fraud.
State elections officials have said that the lawsuit concerned about 4,500 people whose registrations were challenged in the 90-day period. It wasn’t clear how many of those challenges were successful.
State Board of Elections spokesman Pat Gannon said the board is “working quickly to establish the procedures necessary to fully comply with the court order.” However, board attorney Josh Lawson said the state has not yet decided whether it will appeal facets of the ruling, potentially after the election.
The Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, said the judge’s decision “will help make sure not a single voter’s voice is unlawfully taken away.” The group, he added, “will not back down and allow this suppression to continue.”
In most cases cited by the lawsuit, mail to a voter has been returned as undeliverable, which county boards can accept as evidence that the voter doesn’t live there.
Under state law, any voter can challenge another county resident’s registration, resulting in a hearing at which the challenger presents evidence, according to a state legal filing. If local officials find probable cause, the challenged voter is given notice of a subsequent hearing. A voter who doesn’t rebut the evidence can be removed.