Supreme Court Allows North Carolina’s Tighter Voting Rules

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday allowed North Carolina to implement tighter voting rules for the midterm elections, blocking a lower-court ruling that required the state to restore same-day voter registration and count ballots cast in the wrong precinct.

The high court’s action, announced in a brief written order, dealt a blow to the Justice Department and civil-rights advocates who had argued North Carolina’s new voting rules would harm minority voting rights.

The case is one of several that have come to the high court in the run-up to the midterm elections.

Last week the justices shortened the time period for early voting in Ohio, another loss for civil rights advocates. That action came on a 5-4 vote, with conservative justices in the majority.

In another pending case, voting-rights challengers are asking the high court to block enforcement of Wisconsin’s voter identification law.

In the North Carolina case, the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Richmond, Va., last week held that eliminating same-day registration and out-of-precinct ballots would disproportionately harm African-Americans, and it prevented the state from enforcing the provisions.

The state in response filed an emergency appeal with the Supreme Court, saying the voting changes imposed by the lower court were “extremely burdensome” and couldn’t be implemented in an orderly manner.

The high court granted the state’s request it be allowed to enforce its voting rules as planned. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

Until last year, states that historically discriminated against minority voters were required to clear election procedures with the federal government before implementing them.

In June 2013, however, the Supreme Court struck down those provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, finding by a 5-4 vote that social progress over the intervening decades had rendered such federal oversight of state practices unconstitutional.

North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature then repealed a raft of measures intended to improve voter turnout. The state’s new ban on same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting were the only two issues in front of the Supreme Court.

Lower courts already had allowed the state to implement other changes, such as a reduction on early-voting days, while litigation over the state’s voting rules continues.

Challengers to the restrictions said they were disappointed with the decision.

“We asked the courts to keep same-day registration and out of precinct provisional balloting in place for the upcoming election because past experience shows that these measures often correct for errors made by elections officials, not because voters themselves have done anything wrong in their quest to participate in democracy by casting a ballot,” said Allison Riggs, a lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, said the high court “has ensured this popular and common sense bill will apply to the upcoming election.”

The courtroom battle over North Carolina’s rules has focused partly on how judges should evaluate changes in state voting requirements.

The state said its new rules should be evaluated on their own merits and not judged against the prior regulations. But the Fourth Circuit said it was “centrally relevant” to consider whether North Carolina’s new voting rules would worsen the position of minority voters compared with previous state practices.

This article by Brent Kendall at brent.kendall@wsj.com and Jess Bravin at jess.bravin@wsj.com appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 8, 2014 at 10:07 p.m. ET