The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected an appeal to reinstate North Carolina's law mandating voter identification and scaling back early voting, which a lower court said targeted African-Americans "with almost surgical precision."
The justices left in place last summer's ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals striking down the law's photo ID requirement to vote in person. The 2013 measure approved by Republicans also reduced the number of early voting days and prohibited same-day registration during the early voting period.
While Democrats and their allies who sued over the law praised the denial as a victory for voting rights, the door appears open for the GOP-controlled legislature to take another crack at a voter ID requirement and other election changes that can pass legal muster.
Chief Justice John Roberts cautioned Monday in the two-page order that the rejection of the appeal is not a comment on the court's view about the substance of the law. Thirty-two states already have some kind of voter ID law in force, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Citing Roberts' words in the order, state House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger said that "all North Carolinians can rest assured that Republican legislators will continue fighting to protect the integrity of our elections by implementing the commonsense requirement to show a photo ID when we vote."
The order was complicated as Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein tried to withdraw the appeal, which was first filed when Republican Pat McCrory was governor. Roberts wrote the political situation created uncertainty over who is authorized to seek review of the lower court ruling.
Cooper, Stein's predecessor as attorney general, opposed the law personally while state attorneys he oversaw defended the law on behalf of the state until the 4th Circuit ruling. Cooper could use his veto stamp to block any new law, although Republicans have veto-proof majorities in both General Assembly chambers to override him.
Monday's "announcement is good news for North Carolina voters. We need to be making it easier to vote, not harder," Cooper said in a release, adding that he "will continue to work to protect the right of every legal, registered North Carolinian to participate in our democratic process."
The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, a lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said it's time for Republicans to stop proposing new restrictions.
"We urge the General Assembly to finally accept that racially discriminatory laws have no place in our democracy, and certainly not when it comes to the sacred right to vote," Barber said in a release.
The North Carolina dispute is similar to the court fight over Texas' voter ID law, also struck down as racially discriminatory.
Republicans in both states moved to enact new voting measures after the Supreme Court in 2013 struck down a provision of the federal Voting Rights Act that had required them to get advance approval before changing laws dealing with elections.
Voters, civil rights groups and the Obama administration quickly filed lawsuits challenging the new laws. The Trump administration already has dropped its objections to the Texas law.
Shortly before Trump took office in January, the Justice Department urged the Supreme Court to reject the North Carolina appeal.
When the law passed in July 2013, North Carolina Republicans said voter ID is a sound requirement to increase the integrity of elections. But the 4th U.S. Circuit said last July the state provided no evidence of the kind of in-person voter fraud the ID mandate would address.
The Richmond, Virginia-based court said the law was enacted with intentional bias against black voters. The law had been amended in 2015 to include a method for people unable to get a photo ID to still vote.
Following the appellate ruling, the state asked the high court to allow the challenged provisions to remain in effect in November's election. The justices rejected the request by virtue of a 4-4 tie on most of the challenged provisions, with the four more conservative justices supporting the state's bid.
The State Board of Elections reported last month that about 500 ineligible voters cast ballots out of the 4.8 million recorded in North Carolina during the November election. Most of the number involved felons unable to vote because they had not completed their punishments.
Sherman reported from Washington.