Winston-Salem, N.C. — North Carolina must allow voters whose registrations were challenged by activists in Cumberland, Moore and Beaufort counties to vote, a federal judge ruled Friday afternoon.
U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs also ordered the state to stop using the challenge process in question during the 90-day period before elections. Any voters who were removed in the three counties due such challenges, she said, should be restored and allowed to vote in this election, even if they were already turned away.
"The Court concludes that the balance of the equities and public interest factors weigh decidedly in favor of protecting eligible voters who are being removed from the voter rolls and having their registrations canceled based on a single mailing returned undeliverable," Biggs wrote, adding that was particularly so "where, as in this case, the voter is often unaware that the registration is being challenged."
Legally speaking, Biggs' order is a temporary block. A full trial on the issue will be held after the election. Between 3,500 and 4,000 voters will be affected by this decision.
Individual plaintiffs whose registration had been challenged and the state chapter of the NAACP filed suit challenging the process used to remove the voters. Under that law, any voter can challenge another voter's registration if they live in the same county. That challenge results in a hearing where the voter who is challenged can present evidence of his or her residence. Local elections officials then make the decision as to whether to remove a voter.
At a hearing earlier this week, Biggs described that process as "insane," and her ruling curbs its use going forward. During the trial, there was evidence some of the mailings used to create the challenge were sent to the wrong address, while others were evacuated due to Hurricane Matthew. Still others moved within the county but were still eligible to vote. But county boards upheld those challenges because the voters in question didn't attend a hearing.
"We are working quickly to establish the procedures necessary to comply with the court order between now and Election Day," said Kim Strach, director of the N.C. State Board of Elections.
Advocates who brought the suit said they were pleased with the ruling.
"This emergency injunction will help make sure not a single voter’s voice is unlawfully taken away," said the Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP. "The NAACP is defending the rights of all North Carolinians to participate in this election, and we will not back down and allow this suppression to continue."
Barber also described the process as a "race-driven" attempt to discourage black voting.
James Brower, an army veteran and voter whose registration was challenged, spoke to reporters on a conference call.
"I was denied my right to vote and it has been restored," Brower said.