With hundreds of campaigns in North Carolina entering their final six weeks, a federal appeals court must now decide what kind of election the state will hold. Will it be run under North Carolina’s old voting laws? Or will state voters cast ballots under the controversial set of rules passed last year? The answer now rests with three judges – two from the Carolinas – from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. For two hours in Charlotte on Thursday, judges Diana Motz of Maryland, Henry Floyd of South Carolina and James Wynn of Martin County heard point and counterpoint in the state’s ongoing battle over the vote. Passed by Republicans in the final hours of the 2013 legislative session, the new rules shaved a week off early voting (though the total number of hours remain the same), ended programs to allow residents to register and vote on the same day, eliminated the use of provisional ballots by voters who turned up at the wrong precincts, and cut a program that allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to register early.
A coalition of voter and civil rights groups filed suit shortly after the package was signed into law. The U.S. Justice Department soon joined them. They claim the rules disproportionately affect minorities and other groups. The case is scheduled for trial next July.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder of Winston-Salem refused the groups’ request to hold the November election under the old rules. He said the challengers had not proved that the laws would cause “irreparable harm.”
Thursday, the 4th Circuit judges heard the groups’ appeal. What they decide in the coming days could have have profound implications – on election officials in the state’s 100 counties preparing for the November vote, and on the outcome of the U.S. Senate race in North Carolina on which control of Congress may hinge.