Earlier this month, North Carolina asked the Justices to halt a lower-court ruling that blocked the implementation of its controversial 2013 election law – including provisions requiring voters to present a government-issued photo ID, reducing the number of days when voters can go to the polls before Election Day, and eliminating preregistration for young voters. The state told the Court that, unless it is allowed to apply those three provisions to the November 2016 general elections, there would be “voter confusion” and “consequent incentive to remain away from the polls.”
Yesterday the Obama administration and civil rights groups fired back. They told the Justices that in fact the exact opposite is true: because North Carolina has already made preparations for the election to take place under the terms of the lower-court’s order, granting the state’s request would “dramatically increase, not reduce, the risks of mistakes and confusion.” By contrast, requiring the November election to go forward under the order’s terms – for example, without the photo-ID requirement and with the extra days for early voting – would simply maintain the status quo.
To the extent that North Carolina is seeking emergency relief because the general election is looming, the challengers insisted, the problem is entirely one of its own making. First, the state expressly told the Fourth Circuit that it would be able to comply whatever the court ordered as long as the court’s ruling was issued by late July – which it was. Second, the challengers emphasized, the state waited seventeen days after the Fourth Circuit issued its decision to go to the Supreme Court. The state does not explain, the Obama administration noted pointedly, “why, if there was a genuine ‘emergency,’ they waited so long to seek relief.”
The challengers dismissed the state’s suggestion that allowing the lower court’s decision to stand would place virtually all other voter ID laws in jeopardy. The Fourth Circuit based its decision blocking the law on “a careful appraisal of overwhelming evidence specific to North Carolina,” the Obama administration explained. The only other voter ID laws that would be at risk, the administration suggested, are those “for which the evidence overwhelmingly establishes that they were enacted with a racially discriminatory intent.”
The application is now in the hands of Chief Justice John Roberts, who is responsible for emergency appeals from North Carolina and the other states in the Fourth Circuit. Roberts can either act on the request on his own or refer the issue to the full eight-Justice Court. The state would need at least five Justices to vote in its favor to prevail in its request that the Court stay the lower court ruling and allow the law to take effect.