Inside The Case: Why Federal Judge Denied Injunction Against NC Voting Changes
A federal judge ruled late Friday against the U.S. Justice Department's request to put some of North Carolina's sweeping election changes on hold. Judge Thomas Schroeder's decision comes about a month after a four-day hearing in Winston-Salem, in which the Justice Department, the NAACP and other plaintiffs said the changes will deny or curtail African-Americans' right to vote.
First of all, what exactly was the Justice Department asking for at this stage of the lawsuit?
It wanted a preliminary injunction against three parts of North Carolina's election overhaul. Those changes cut the early voting period by a week, eliminate same-day registration, and no longer count ballots cast in the wrong precincts.
A full trial is scheduled for next summer. So for now, the Justice Department had to show it's likely to succeed against those changes at trial. It also had to show that African-Americans would suffer irreparable harm this November if the changes were not put on hold.
But Judge Schroeder ruled, "The United States demonstrated neither irreparable harm nor...a likelihood of success on its claims."
And how did he explain his ruling?
He addressed each change individually. He said that African-American voters will still have an equal opportunity to register without same-day registration.
He also pointed out North Carolina has only had same-day registration since 2007. So he said the logical conclusion of the Justice Department's argument is that North Carolina would've been in violation of the Voting Rights Act before 2007. The Justice Department never took that stance - it argued the change is discriminatory now because African-Americans have come to disproportionately rely on same-day registration.
That argument - that the changes will have a disproportionate impact - has been a huge part of this case. How did Judge Schroeder address it?
The part of his decision on out-of-precinct ballots sums it up. He said his court accepts that no longer counting those ballots will disproportionately affect African-Americans. But he said that's not enough to get an injunction - the plaintiffs failed to show an inequality of opportunity.
Judge Schroeder also wrote that if he determined North Carolina has to count out-of-precinct ballots…that could jeopardize the laws of the majority of states, which don't count out-of-precinct ballots.
There are also states that don't have early voting. What did Judge Schroeder say about that?
He handled this change a little differently: he did not say whether the Justice Department is likely to win its argument about North Carolina shortening its early voting period. But he said even assuming it does win that argument next summer, there's no evidence that counties will not be able to handle turnout this fall with 10 days of early voting instead of 17.
He pointed out it's a midterm election, which traditionally has much lower turnout than presidential elections. But he also made a point to say he expresses no view as to what the reduction in early voting could mean for other elections down the road.
Meaning that the early voting cuts may not have as good a chance of surviving trial next summer?
Possibly. What we do know is that Judge Schroeder does not think the Justice Department will succeed in its arguments about getting rid of same-day registration and no longer counting ballots cast in the wrong precinct. We didn't get as clear an answer on the early voting cuts.
And keep in mind, there's another part of the election overhaul the Justice Department is challenging that was not part of this decision: requiring photo ID to vote. That change doesn't kick in until 2016, so it'll be a big part of next summer's trial.