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September 29, 2014

“Why doesn’t the state of North Carolina want people to vote?”

That was the question federal judge James A. Wynn Jr. posed to state attorneys defending North Carolina’s restrictive new voting law in a federal appeals court in Charlotte on Thursday.

Wynn’s line of inquiry came about after the ACLU and other groups asked him and the two other judges of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to put on hold key provisions of the law that violate the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act. The challenged restrictions, scheduled to take effect for the November midterm elections, will eliminate a week of early voting, end same-day registration, and prohibit out-of-precinct voting.

Taken together, the measures going into effect could disenfranchise tens of thousands of eligible voters in the upcoming midterm elections. During the 2010 election, for example, more than 200,000 voters cast ballots during the seven eliminated days of early voting.

The new rules have already had a pernicious effect. A recent report from Democracy NC showedthat more than 450 eligible voters were already disenfranchised during North Carolina’s primary elections in May because they were not able to register at their current address in time under the new voting law. Elections officials have testified in the case that even more people left early voting lines during the primaries because they learned that under the new restrictions, their votes would not be counted.

The November elections carry particularly high stakes, as North Carolina will be home to perhaps the most hotly contestedU.S. Senate race in the nation and is expected to have three to four times more ballots cast than in the primaries.

Judge Wynn, a North Carolinian himself, discussed his own experience voting in North Carolina and how the ability to register on Election Day or cast a provisional ballot has helped countless people who show up at the precinct closest to their home, instead of the one that they are assigned. 

“What’s wrong with that?” Judge Wynn asked attorneys for the state of out of precinct voting. “It’s been working for years.”

Even under the new changes, the federal Help America Vote Act requires poll workers to have voters who show up at the wrong precinct cast a provisional ballot. Previously, those ballots cast by eligible, registered voters would be counted.  The only difference under the new rules? 

“Their votes wouldn’t be counted,” said Thomas Farr, an attorney for the state. 

Farr and other attorneys for the state argued that reinstating a week of early voting, same day registration, and out-of-precinct voting would create “administrative burdens” for state election officials.

But Judge Henry F. Floyd put any such difficulties in context when he asked the state, "Does an administrative burden trump a constitutional right?" It’s a question that deserves an answer because, as Judge Wynn pointed out, “That [burden] would result in a lot of people being able to vote.”

The state of North Carolina shouldn’t have to be reminded of that in federal court.

Have questions about voting in North Carolina? Visit http://acluofnc.org/letmevote

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