The Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a last-ditch request from North Carolina to reinstate a controversial set of voting restrictions that would have taken effect in the lead-up to the November election.
In a one-sentence order that did not include any reasoning, the high court declined the state’s petition, which sought to put on hold a July ruling that found the voting law discriminated against African-Americans and compared it to a relic of the Jim Crow era.
The state failed to convince at least five justices that three provisions of the contested law ― its voter ID requirement, cutbacks to early voting and elimination of pre-registration for certain under-18 voters ― were worth putting back on the books. The state had argued the measures were necessary to avoid “confusion” that might keep people away from the polls.
But three justices ― Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito ― did note that they would’ve granted the state’s request, at least with respect to voter ID and early voting. Justice Clarence Thomas, for his part, would’ve granted North Carolina’s petition in full.
In essence, this means that the Supreme Court voted 4-to-4 in the dispute, with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan swinging against the state. A ninth conservative member in the mold of the late Justice Antonin Scalia might have given North Carolina a key victory.
The president of the North Carolina NAACP, one of the several civil rights groups that challenged the voting law, praised the court’s order on Wednesday.
“This critical rejection of the State’s position will allow the people of North Carolina to exercise the fundamental right to vote this November without expansive restrictions by racist politicians or racist policies,” said the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II in a statement. The American Civil Liberties Union also applauded Wednesday’s development.
In legal filings, the civil rights groups had countered that the state’s own prior efforts to comply with the July ruling plus “on-the-ground activity” by election officials ― including preparations at the county level ― flew in the face of the state’s insistence that there was not enough time to get things in order for Election Day.
“Now, almost a month after the Fourth Circuit’s ruling, State and local elections officials have taken nearly all of the steps to comply with that ruling,” the voting rights groups said in a brief opposing North Carolina’s request.
The Obama administration, which in 2013 suffered a big loss when the Supreme Court did away with a key section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, filed its own brief urging the justices to deny the state’s plea, and to not read too much into arguments in favor of a law that was properly found to be discriminatory.
The Supreme Court’s move is a significant setback for Gov. Pat McCrory (R), who had defended the law’s voter ID requirement as “common sense” and vowed to seek emergency relief from the high court soon after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit struck it down.
But McCrory didn’t follow through on his promise: It took the state 17 days to ask the Supreme Court to inspect the ruling ― a delay that may have played a role in the court’s action on Wednesday.
In a statement, McCrory lamented there weren’t enough votes at the high court to side with the state, but commended the justices who did vote in its favor ― while also taking a jab at state Attorney General Roy Cooper (D), who has refused to defend the voter ID law in court and is also leading in the polls in the race for the North Carolina governorship.
“North Carolina has been denied basic voting rights already granted to more than 30 other states to protect the integrity of one person, one vote through a common-sense voter ID law,” McCrory said.
The battle over voting rights in North Carolina now turns to county election boards, which are Republican-controlled and have leeway to pass rules setting hours of operation for polling sites, as well as for on-campus and Sunday voting ― all mechanisms that may favor Democrats. All of these changes must be approved by the state election board.
Allison Riggs, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which is monitoring these rule changes, was otherwise heartened by the signal the Supreme Court sent.
“Hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians will now be able to vote without barriers,” Riggs said in a statement. “The voting booth is the one place where everyone is equal and where we all have the same say.”
This article has been updated with comment from McCrory and civil rights groups.