Part of new NC election law ruled likely unconstitutional, in loss for Republicans

The changes to the law, which have now been blocked, would've affected people who use same-day registration during early voting -- a process that lets people register to vote, or update their address, then immediately cast a ballot.
Posted 2024-01-22T12:41:40+00:00 - Updated 2024-01-22T19:34:53+00:00
The North Carolina flag flies over the historic state capitol building.

New changes to North Carolina elections laws are likely unconstitutional and should be blocked from going into effect — at least until problems with the state’s same-day registration system are fixed — a federal judge ruled over the weekend.

In an order issued Sunday night, U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder found that the new rules would've violated voters' due process rights, in part by throwing out potentially legitimate ballots without giving voters a chance to fight that decision.

The decision likely means the rules won't be used in this year's elections, when North Carolinians will be voting for president, governor and most other key political positions.

The now-blocked changes to the law would've affected thousands of people who use same-day registration during early voting. That process lets people register to vote, or update their address, and then immediately cast a ballot.

The main argument in the case boiled down to what should happen after people use same-day registration. Typically the state sends a postcard to the address provided by the same-day registrant. If the postcard is returned as undeliverable, the voter’s ballot is canceled.

Democrats sued, saying there should be more efforts to contact voters, not just by mail, before canceling their ballots. People should also have a chance to dispute challenges to their ballot, and prove they're legitimate voters, they said. They argued that the new rules would cause too many legitimate ballots to be thrown out.

Schroeder agreed and gave lawmakers a choice: find a way to address those due process concerns or not enforce the new rules.

The same-day registration rules were included in a wide-ranging law that made many other adjustments to elections rules ahead of 2024. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill last year, but Republican state legislators overrode his veto to pass it into law.

Different legal challenges against other parts of that law are still moving forward, including challenges to the new rules it made for mail-in voting and poll observer access. The arguments against the mail-in voting changes are similar in theme to the arguments in this case: That Republican lawmakers are trying to change the rules to make it more likely that legitimate ballots will be thrown out and not counted.

Those mail-in voting changes included moving up the deadline for mail-in votes to arrive on Election Day; state law used to allow a three-day grace period for the mail to deliver ballots after the election.

But for now, those other rules remain in place. Sunday's ruling only dealt with the rules for same-day registration.

House Speaker Tim Moore and House elections committee chair Rep. Gray Mills — two top-ranking Republican lawmakers, who are currently running for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives — indicated in a joint statement Monday that they'll work to keep fighting those other lawsuits even as they also work to abide by the new ruling in this case.

"The court order requires relatively minor changes to one small part of the bill, and we are working with our attorneys and the State Board of Elections to ensure that the entire bill is in effect before the primary and general elections this year," they wrote. "We will never stop fighting for election integrity on behalf of North Carolina’s voters."

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, who include the North Carolina Democratic Party and voting rights groups Voto Latino and Down Home NC, cited dozens of past cases of those postcards being returned because of errors by postal workers or election staffers, not because the voter had given a fake address.

It's simply un-American, NC Democratic Party lawyer Seth Waxman said during a court hearing last month, for the state to argue "that you can have your ballot not counted, and not be told or given an opportunity to address it."

Democrats claim that the changes were meant to target young or low-income people, who tend to move around more than others, and who tend to lean heavily Democratic when they vote — an accusation Republicans deny.

State elections officials said they believed they were legally prevented from doing any outreach to voters beyond the postcards. Lawyers for the state legislature's GOP leadership disagreed. The judge ordered all sides to get together and try to figure out a resolution.

Those talks failed, so in Sunday's ruling, Schroeder blocked the new changes from taking effect — at least until the state can set up a system giving more due process to voters to try to keep their ballots from being thrown out.

Republican lawmakers had argued the changes weren't about throwing out people's ballots, but rather about preventing fraud. The Republican National Committee also became involved in the lawsuit, in light of North Carolina's role as a key swing state in 2024.