A basic principle of electoral democracy is that the people pick their leaders. But by tweaking the rules—such as those which govern which forms of identification voters need; when the polls are open; how the ballot is composed—incumbents can tip the balance in favour of one party. Republicans have been particularly active in this endeavour in recent years, crafting rules that make it more difficult for blacks, Hispanics and the poor—core Democratic constituencies—to exercise their right to vote. Most courts to consider challenges to these laws in recent months have rejected them as violations of the Voting Rights Act or the 14th Amendment, or both. Now some of the losers in those cases are trying their hand at one last appeal—to the United States Supreme Court. They are bound to be disappointed.
The justices have so far acted on one petition, rebuffing North Carolina’s request to let it implement five voting changes that an appeals court had condemned as “target[ing] African-Americans with almost surgical precision”. On August 31st, the eight-member Supreme Court, stuck without a ninth justice since February when Antonin Scalia died, divided 4-4 on the Tar Heel state’s request. The four conservative justices, as expected, voted to allow North Carolina to implement most of its voting restrictions, but none of the liberal-leaning justices opted to provide the fifth vote necessary to issue a stay. “Four liberal justices blocked North Carolina protections afforded by our sensible voter laws”, Pat McRory, North Carolina’s governor, said in response.
With no remaining avenue of appeal, North Carolina is compelled to revert to less stringent photo-ID rules, keep its number of early voting days at 17 (rather than 10) and retain a programme that preregisters voters on the cusp of their 18th birthdays. Each of these averted changes, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals noted in its late-July decision, had been written into the statute after Republican lawmakers requested and surveyed data on the behaviour of black voters. But their plan to scrap the voting procedures that blacks rely on most has itself been scrapped by the federal courts.