The U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding an Arizona law that bans out-of-precinct voting could signal repercussions for North Carolina voters.
Tossing out ballots cast by people who vote in the wrong precinct was part of the 2013 North Carolina law best known for requiring voter photo ID.
A federal appeals court struck down the law in 2016 saying its provisions “targeted African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Several lawsuits challenging voter photo ID in North Carolina are ongoing.
North Carolina voters who go to the wrong precinct on Election Day have their choices count for races in which they are eligible to vote, as long as they vote in their home county.
The U.S. Supreme Court opinion handed down Thursday could clear the way for North Carolina legislators to try for an out-of-precinct ballot ban.
Opponents of the Arizona election provisions argued they disproportionately harmed Black and Hispanic voters in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
In the 6-3 opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “Having to identify one’s polling place and then travel there to vote does not exceed the usual burdens of voting.’”
NC Republican Rep. Grey Mills, chairman of the House Election Law and Campaign Finance Committee, and GOP Senators Warren Daniel, Ralph Hise, and Paul Newton, co-chairmen of the Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee, did not respond to email Thursday.
Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, said in an interview that he hoped the legislature would not attempt another out-of-precinct ballot ban.
In any case, Phillips doubted such a bill would survive a veto by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
“Given what happened eight years ago and Republicans losing that legal battle – they would have a fight on their hands again if they tried to pass that,” Phillips said. “I cannot imagine that Democrats would join Republicans in passing that kind of law and having the Governor sign it.”
Republicans hold majorities in both the state House and Senate, but do not have enough votes to override vetoes on their own.
An attempt to reimpose a ban on out-of-precinct voting in North Carolina would invite another lawsuit, said Mitchell D. Brown, voting rights counsel at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. The voting rights group challenged the state’s 2013 law, and filed an amicus brief in the Arizona U.S. Supreme Court case.
“We would challenge any law that bans out-of-precinct voting,” Brown said. “I think the data we have shows that there is a heavy disparate impact.”
In its amicus brief, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice described the burdens placed on Black voters in North Carolina who had their ballots thrown out because they could not get to their assigned precincts due to disability, lack of transportation, or work obligations that prevented them from traveling long distances. The North Carolina law was active for a short time in 2014.
Black voters change residences more often than white voters, and are less likely to have transportation, the brief said.
Those examples show how voting laws that appear to be neutral “can have a profound, and inevitable, adverse effect on minority voting,” the brief said.
In one case, a couple in Wayne County walked to the polling site closest to their home, but were told they were at the wrong place. Their assigned precinct was more twice the distance from their home, according to the brief.
They did not own a car, could not afford to use public transportation, and had physical disabilities that limited how far they could walk.
Because they couldn’t walk to their assigned precinct, they cast out-of-precinct ballots that ended up getting thrown out.
In the Supreme Court opinion, Alito wrote that the Arizona ban on out-of-precinct ballots was okay for 98% of voters.
“The racial disparity in burdens allegedly caused by the out-of-precinct policy is small in absolute terms,” he wrote. “Of the Arizona counties that reported out-of-precinct ballots in the 2016 general election, a little over 1% of Hispanic voters, 1% of African-American voters, and 1% of Native American voters who voted on election day cast an out-of-precinct ballot. For non-minority voters, the rate was around 0.5%. A procedure that appears to work for 98% or more of voters to whom it applies—minority and non-minority alike—is unlikely to render a system unequally open.”
Brown, the Southern Coalition lawyer, said it matters if 2% of voters are blocked by law from having their votes count.
“By definition, if 2 percent cannot access the ballot box, that’s not equal access,” Brown said. “Two percent is a lot of voters, and that could change the outcome of elections.”
The U.S. Supreme Court decision comes as dozens of states have approved or are considering more voting restrictions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Cheri Beasley, a candidate in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, denounced the decision.
“As more than 40 legislatures across the country work to disenfranchise voters, especially voters of color, the Supreme Court struck another blow to our democracy by giving states the ability to do just that with limited recourse,” Beasley, a former NC Supreme Court chief justice, said in a statement.
“This decision dangerously puts at risk our ability to fight against voter suppression and makes it even more urgent for Congress to act to protect Americans’ right to vote. In the Senate, I will always stand up for what’s right and will fight to protect the fundamental right to vote.”