RALEIGH -- Same-day registration won't be allowed during early voting in North Carolina and Election Day ballots cast in the wrong precinct won't be counted this fall after the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday blocked a ruling that had set aside parts of a 2013 election law.
A majority on the nation's highest court agreed to halt the ruling of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Two justices dissented.
The decision means the full law will remain enforced while the state and civil rights groups that challenged the law prepare for trial next summer. The full law was enforced during the May primary as well.
In-person early voting begins Oct. 23 and the registration deadline remains Friday, as originally planned.
The court's order was unsigned, as it typically is in these situations. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented, saying they would have left the appellate ruling in place. It is unclear how the other seven justices came down on the matter, other than that at least five formed a majority and voted in North Carolina's favor.
State attorneys filed an emergency application for a stay last week, the day after the 2-1 circuit court decision in favor of setting aside the provisions. Lawyers for the state argued that bringing back the provisions would cause voter confusion and trouble for local election officials to implement them again.
Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, who shepherded the voting law through the state House, said he's glad the decision of "two obviously partisan appellate court judges" at the 4th Circuit was blocked. All three judges on the panel that ruled Oct. 1 were appointed by Democratic presidents.
"The law is reasonable, fair and treats all people the same," Lewis said in an interview.
Attorneys for civil rights groups and voters who sued had dismissed potential problems to administer the provisions and said keeping the law fully in place would mean thousands of voters would be disenfranchised. They said black voters use same-day registration and out-of-precinct balloting at higher rates than whites.
Ginsburg wrote she would have denied the application, saying the lower appeals court agreed at least two provisions in the law "risked significantly reducing opportunities for black voters to exercise the franchise in violation" of a portion of the U.S. Voting Rights Act.
"I would not displace that record-based reasoned judgment," she wrote. The majority provided no explanation of its ruling, which also stays a preliminary injunction by a federal trial court judge in Winston-Salem.
The decision is a victory for Republican leaders at the General Assembly who passed the law. GOP Gov. Pat McCrory signed the bill into law. Three federal lawsuits challenging several provisions have been filed by the North Carolina state NAACP, League of Women Voters and the U.S. government among others.
"Eliminating these measures will cause irreparable harm of denying citizens their right to vote in the November election - a right that, once lost, can never be recovered," said the state NAACP president, the Rev. William Barber, echoing the conclusion of the 4th Circuit court.
The NAACP and other allied groups have focused this year on voter registration drives they hope will cancel out what they call voter-suppression tactics within the law.
Lewis said it was reasonable to have people register to vote in a timely fashion and vote in the correct precinct so their ballots would fully count.
Nearly 95,000 people registered to vote during early voting in the 2012 general election and cast their ballots the same day, while 90 percent of the almost 7,500 people who cast out-of-precinct ballots for that election had their choices fully or partially counted, according to court filings.
Other voting law changes passed last year already were to stay in place for the Nov. 4 ballot. They include reducing early voting to 10 days and preparing voters for a photo identification requirement in 2016.
McCrory released the following statement following the U.S. Supreme Court decision: "I am pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court has ensured this popular and common sense bill will apply to the upcoming election. We respect the legal process and thank the Supreme Court justices for protecting the integrity of our elections."
Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg) issued a joint statement as well: "Today, in bipartisan fashion, our nation's highest court affirmed North Carolina's election reform law by allowing it to move forward for next month's elections. The court's ruling restores the clarity and certainty to the election process that has been in place since the May primary and was disrupted at the eleventh hour. These commonsense reforms will help support voter integrity in North Carolina while protecting every citizen's constitutional right to vote."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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