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The Supreme Court Just Threw the Brakes on North Carolina’s Voting Restrictions

But it may not be as big a victory as it seems.

By Jared Keller


Voters cast their ballots at the Williston Middle School polling station in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 2008. (Photo: Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court rejected an emergency request by the state of North Carolina to reinstate a broad swath of voting restrictions, the Huffington Post reports.

The legislation, which required North Carolina voters to provide photo identification at their local polling places and placed limits on early voting, was originally struck down by a federal appeals court in July. The three-judge appeals court panel ruled that the legislation targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision,” representing “one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history.”

The Court’s decision also stands out against its 2013 rejection of parts of the landmark Voting Rights Act, especially given the rise of voter ID laws in recent years. As Sarah Smith reported in August, there are currently 15 states with new voting laws on the books headed into this year’s presidential election, mostly involving limits on early voting and voter ID requirements.

Voting rights advocates are hailing the Court’s decision as a victory for democracy. “The Supreme Court was correct to deny North Carolina’s last-ditch effort to undermine African-American voter participation in the November election,” said Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, in a statement. “This ruling means that thousands of voters who would have been disenfranchised will now be able to participate in the presidential election.”

For those looking to read into the Supreme Court’s decision, don’t try too hard.

While many of the new voting restrictions cropping up nationally are currently winding their way through the federal court system, the North Carolina law is one of several before the Court involving voter restrictions, including a voter ID law in Texas that went into force after the 2013 VRA decision, an Ohio provision on a “golden week” for early voting, and redistricting efforts in Wisconsin.

But for those looking to read into the Supreme Court’s decision, don’t try too hard: The Huffington Post’s Christian Farias notes that the Court declined the state’s last-minute petition in a one-line order “that did not include any reasoning,” a stark contrast to the strongly worded decision that compared the law to the outright discrimination of the Jim Crow era that marred North Carolina’s history.

It’s also worth noting that the rejection came out of a 4–4 deadlock, which could mean the dysfunctional Court is once again making decisions based on it’s lopsided composition. Reuters reports that “three of the court’s conservatives, including Chief Justice John Roberts, would have allowed the voter identification provision and limits on early voting to be in effect for the election,” suggesting that the short decision from the Court was designed to avoid establishing precedent.

Even North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory implicitly recognized this split as the root of the Court’s failure to “protect the integrity of one person, one vote,” as he put it in a statement Wednesday:

Even without any support from our state’s attorney general, we were pleased that four justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, agreed with this right while four liberal justices blocked North Carolina protections afforded by our sensible voter laws.

As I wrote earlier this year, the Court’s eight-justice composition has led to a series of unusual rulings, indicative of a judicial body focused more on punting than actually deciding the substantive questions at the heart of each legal conflict — saying “what the law is,” as Justice John Marshall said centuries ago. The Court deferred on the mega-arcane Hawkins v. Community Bank of Raymore back in March and the more politically polarizing Zubik v. Burwell in May, declining to resolve the two jurisprudential conundrums in the interest of “institutional responsibility,” as Harvard Law School professor Richard Fallontold me at the time.

The Court’s current dysfunction can be a good thing for voting rights advocates: After all, the late Antonin Scalia saw “racial entitlement” in civil rights legislation like the VRA, and his presence on the fully functional bench may have doomed African-American voters in North Carolina to a purgatory of state-sanctioned disenfranchisement. But it’s also a reminder of the imbalance at the nation’s highest court. The decisions the Court delivers may be just, but the absence of a justice due to political jousting in Washington remains a grave injustice for all.