Wednesday’s Supreme Court deadlock ensured that North Carolina’s restrictive voting law won’t be in force for the November election. But it also underlined that the court’s four conservatives appear wedded to a strikingly limited approach to protecting access to the ballot. And it made clearer than ever that the future of voting rights in America will likely be determined by the court’s ninth justice—and therefore by the winner of the presidential election. In a 4-4 ruling that included no explanation, the high court rejected North Carolina’s bid to reinstate its photo ID requirement, its cuts to early voting, and its elimination of a popular pre-registration program for high-school students. All those provisions of the state’s voting law, and others, were blocked by a federal appeals court panel in July. The decision wasn’t a surprise. More notable was that three of the court’s conservatives—Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito—would have granted North Carolina’s request to put the ID requirement and the early voting cuts back into effect. The fourth conservative, Justice Clarence Thomas, would have done so for all three provisions at issue.
The conservatives would have ruled for North Carolina despite what many observers saw as a weak case. The state claimed an emergency required the justices to act, but waited over two weeks to ask them to intervene.
Much more significant, the appeals court panel found that the law, passed in 2013 weeks after the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in Shelby County v. Holder, intentionally discriminated against African-Americans—a stronger finding even than was needed to block it.
Republican lawmakers, the court explained, asked for data by race on rates of ID ownership, as well as on various forms of voting—early voting, same-day voter registration, out-of-precinct voting, and absentee voting. That data showed that blacks were more likely than whites to lack ID, and to use all those forms of voting except absentee voting, which was used more by whites. Lawmakers duly imposed an ID requirement, and eliminated or cut all those forms of voting except absentee voting. The law’s provisions “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision,” the court found.