A federal appeals court on Wednesday forced North Carolina officials to restore two provisions for ballot access that had been eliminated in a law passed by the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature that civil rights groups said would disproportionately harm black voters.
The 2-to-1 ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit restores “same-day registration,” which allows North Carolina voters to register and cast ballots in single visits to locations for early voting. The ruling also sets aside another part of the law and directs the state to count provisional ballots that are filed outside of voters’ home precincts.
The elimination of same-day registration and out-of-precinct provisional voting were two of the numerous restrictive changes enacted in the law, known as H.B. 589, that was signed by Gov. Pat McCrory in August 2013.
The law was one of several passed recently in Republican-controlled statehouses on the grounds that they would protect the integrity of the electoral process or save money. But many Democrats see them as blatant efforts to suppress the turnout of minorities, young voters and others.
Although civil rights advocates hailed the North Carolina ruling as a victory, it may prove fleeting. Josh Lawson, a spokesman for the state Board of Elections, said that lawyers for the state planned to appeal the decision to the United States Supreme Court as early as Thursday.
Mr. Lawson said the situation could grow increasingly confusing for voters because the Board of Elections had already sent out more than four million voters guides describing laws that the appellate court’s decision would invalidate. Early voting begins in North Carolina on Oct. 23.
Around the nation, the widespread alterations to state voting laws — and the vigorous legal challenges to those changes — have resulted in shifting or unresolved situations in a number of states on the cusp of election season. In Texas, a Federal District Court is expected to rule soon on a challenge to a state law establishing new identification requirements for voters.
In Wisconsin, the courts have allowed the state’s voter ID law to take effect, although critics of the law may soon ask the Supreme Court to decide the matter.
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, blocked an appellate court’s decision that would have restored a week of early voting in Ohio.
In the North Carolina case, a federal district judge in August rejected an effort by the N.A.A.C.P., the Justice Department and others to block most elements of the new voting law. In the majority opinion on Wednesday, Judge James A. Wynn Jr. reversed part of the lower court’s decision, arguing that the elimination of the two ballot-access provisions may have run afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act, because black voters would be disproportionately harmed.
“At the end of the day, we cannot escape the district court’s repeated findings that plaintiffs presented undisputed evidence showing that same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting were enacted to increase voter participation, that African-American voters disproportionately used those electoral mechanisms and that House Bill 589 restricted those mechanisms and thus disproportionately impacts African-American voters,” he wrote.
But Judge Wynn’s ruling allowed a number of other challenged provisions in the law to stand, including one that reduced the early voting period by a week.
While opponents of the law were pleased by the ruling, they were unsure what would come next.
“Nobody thought it could happen,” Anita S. Earls, the executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, one of the challengers of the North Carolina law, wrote in an email. She added: “Now we’ll see if even this limited injunction is reversed by the Supreme Court.”
By RICHARD FAUSSETNew York Times