The sweeping 83-page decision by a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upended voting procedures in a battleground state about three months before Election Day. That ruling and a second wide-ranging decision on Friday, in Wisconsin, continued a string of recent court opinions against restrictive voting laws that critics say were created solely to keep minority and other traditionally Democratic voters away from the polls.
The North Carolina ruling tossed out the state’s requirement that voters present photo identification at the polls and restored voters’ ability to register on Election Day, to register before reaching the 18-year-old voting age, and to cast early ballots, provisions the law had fully or partly eliminated.
The court also held that the ballots of people who had mistakenly voted at the wrong polling stations should be deemed valid.
In the Wisconsin decision, Judge James D. Peterson of Federal District Court ruled that parts of Wisconsin’s 2011 voter ID law are unconstitutional. He ordered the state to make photo IDs more easily available to voters and to broaden the range of student IDs that are accepted at the ballot box.
The decision also threw out other rules that lengthened the residency requirement for newly registered voters, banned distributing absentee ballots by fax or email and sharply restricted the locations and times at which municipal voters, many of them Milwaukee blacks, could cast absentee ballots in person.
Judge Peterson’s sharply worded 119-page ruling suggested that Wisconsin’s voter restrictions, as well as voter ID restrictions in Indiana that have been upheld in the Supreme Court, exist only to suppress votes.
“The evidence in this case casts doubt on the notion that voter ID laws foster integrity and confidence,” he wrote. “The Wisconsin experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections.’’
The court decisions — the third and fourth federal rulings in recent weeks against Republican-enacted voting restrictions — were made as the two political parties raced from their summer conventions into the critical final months of the campaign, with Wisconsin, like North Carolina, considered a contested state.
North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature rewrote the state’s voting rules in 2013 shortly after the Supreme Court struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that had given the Justice Department the power to oversee changes in election procedures in areas with a history of racial discrimination. Forty of the state’s 100 counties had been subject to oversight.
Civil rights advocates and the Justice Department had sued to block the law, but a Federal District Court judge upheld it in April, writing that the state’s “significant, shameful past discrimination” had largely abated in the last 25 years.
On Friday, the three-judge panel emphatically disagreed, saying the lower court’s amply documented ruling had failed to consider “the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina.”
The judges noted that Republican leaders had drafted their restrictions on voting only after receiving data indicating that African-Americans would be the voters most significantly affected by them.
“We cannot ignore the record evidence that, because of race, the legislature enacted one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history,” they wrote. “The court seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees,” they stated. The panel stopped short of reimposing federal oversight on the state’s elections, saying that striking down the law was enough.
Voting rights advocates called the ruling, which Republicans say they will appeal, a resounding victory. Fresh from speaking Thursday night at the Democratic National Convention, the Rev. William J. Barber II, the president of the North Carolina branch of the N.A.A.C.P., which is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, called the decision “a moral and constitutional vindication of our constitutional critique of this extremist legislature and our extremist governor.
“A political majority doesn’t give you the power to run roughshod over the Constitution,” he said.
Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, who was in Baton Rouge, La., on Friday, also welcomed the decision, saying the law “sent a message that contradicted some of the most basic principles of our democracy.
“The ability of Americans to have a voice in the direction of their country — to have a fair and free opportunity to help write the story of this nation — is fundamental to who we are,” she said.
Republicans denounced the opinion as wrongheaded and politically motivated, particularly because the three judges who decided the case had been nominated to the appeals court by either President Bill Clinton or President Obama. (One of them, however, had originally been named by President George W. Bush in 2003 to a vacant seat on the Federal District Court in South Carolina.)
“We can only wonder if the intent is to reopen the door for voter fraud” in November’s federal and state elections, State Senator Phil Berger and the House speaker, Tim Moore, said in a statement. They pledged to appeal the ruling.
So did Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican who is locked in one of the country’s tightest races for governor. “Photo IDs are required to purchase Sudafed, cash a check, board an airplane or enter a federal courtroom,” Mr. McCrory said. “Yet three Democratic judges are undermining the integrity of our elections while also maligning our state.”
Republicans say the restrictions were aimed at ending rampant voter fraud.
But on Friday, the appeals court dismissed that argument, saying the restrictions “constitute inapt remedies for the problems assertedly justifying them and, in fact, impose cures for problems that did not exist.” Academic studies have repeatedly concluded that fraud at the ballot box — the sort that photo identification requirements might reduce — is already vanishingly rare.