RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Friday blocked a North Carolina law that required voters to produce photo identification and included other provisions disproportionately affecting black voters, with the judges ruling the law was enacted “with discriminatory intent.”
Opponents of the law say the ruling should increase participation by black and Hispanic voters on Election Day in the presidential battleground state, which also has closely contested races for U.S. Senate and governor.
It marks the third ruling in less than two weeks against voter ID laws after court decisions regarding Texas and Wisconsin.
Friday’s opinion from a three-judge panel of the Virginia-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reverses a lower-court’s decision upholding the North Carolina law.
“In holding that the legislature did not enact the challenged provisions with discriminatory intent, the court seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees,” the panel wrote in its opinion.
The opinion later states that “the legislature enacted one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history.”
The U.S. Justice Department, state NAACP, League of Women Voters and others had sued North Carolina, saying the restrictions violated the federal Voting Rights Act and the Constitution.
“This is a strong rebuke to what the North Carolina General Assembly did in 2013. It’s a powerful precedent that … federal courts will protect voting rights of voters of color,” said Allison Riggs, who served as the League of Women Voters’ lead lawyer on the case.
The Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter of the NAACP, said in an interview that the ruling was a powerful victory for civil rights and for democracy.
“It is a vindication of our constitutional and moral critique and challenge to the constitutional extremism of our government,” he said.
Messages seeking comment weren’t immediately returned by the state’s Republican governor or legislative leaders.
Earlier this month, a federal appeals court ruled that Texas’ strict voter ID law discriminates against minorities and must be weakened before the November elections. That followed a ruling by a federal judge in Wisconsin that residents without a photo ID in that state will still be allowed to vote in November.
North Carolina’s voting laws were rewritten in 2013 by the General Assembly two years after Republicans took control of both legislative chambers for the first time in a century. It was also shortly after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling changed the requirement that many Southern states receive federal approval before changing voting laws.
The voter ID mandate, which took effect with this year’s March primary, required voters to show one of six qualifying IDs, although voters facing “reasonable impediments” could fill out a form and cast a provisional ballot.
North Carolina legislators made the photo ID requirement for in-person ballots, curtailed the early voting period and eliminated same-day registration and voters’ ability to cast out-of-precinct provisional ballots in their home counties.
The appeals court said data showed that these methods were used disproportionately by black voters, who also were more likely to lack a qualifying ID, and it ruled to block these contested provisions of the law.
The judges wrote that in the years before the North Carolina law took effect, registration and participation by black voters had been dramatically increasing.
In June, an attorney representing the state argued before the appeals court that the law’s authors were aiming to prevent voter fraud and increase public confidence in elections.
The appeals court reversed a ruling by U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder, who determined in April that the plaintiffs failed to prove that the laws made it harder for minority voters to cast ballots.
The federal appeals panel disagreed with Schroeder in its sharply worded opinion.
“We recognize that elections have consequences, but winning an election does not empower anyone in any party to engage in purposeful racial discrimination,” the panel said. “When a legislature dominated by one party has dismantled barriers to African American access to the franchise, even if done to gain votes, ‘politics as usual’ does not allow a legislature dominated by the other party to re-erect those barriers.”
Associated Press writers Martha Waggoner in Raleigh and Mark Sherman in Washington contributed to this report.