Closing arguments in North Carolina Voting Rights Act trial

The parties rested their case on Thursday in the Voting Rights Act trial in North Carolina. Closing arguments were made to the Court on Friday morning, and this afternoon. Here are two articles from the Winston-Salem Journal about the close of the trial.

Here is the preview of today’s closing arguments. Closing arguments in voting rights trial set for today:

WillimaBarberBy about noon, a three-week trial on North Carolina’s election law — one of the most sweeping changes in voting practices in the country since the U.S. Supreme Court dealt what critics consider a blow to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — will end, and the decision on whether the law discriminates against racial minorities will be left up to a federal judge.

Attorneys on both sides officially rested their cases Thursday. State attorneys rested after calling their sixth witness — Brian Neesby, business systems analyst for the State Board of Elections. Plaintiffs, including the N.C. NAACP, called four rebuttal witnesses, including Allan Lichtman, a political science professor at American University, and Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Plaintiffs also called Daphne Ganey, 25, who is from Winston-Salem, and George Bailey, 21, a student at Winston-Salem State University.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder is presiding over the case and will ultimately make the decision later this year.

The N.C. NAACP, League of Women Voters, the U.S. Department of Justice and others are suing the state and Gov. Pat McCrory over the passage and implementation of what is referred to as House Bill 589. McCrory signed the bill into law in August 2013. The official title of the law is the Voter Information Verification Act.

The law reduced the days of early voting from 17 to 10, eliminated same-day voter registration, prohibited out-of-precinct provisional voting and got rid of preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds — all voting practices that plaintiffs say blacks and Hispanics use at higher rates than whites. Plaintiffs argue that curtailing or eliminating these practices will place undue burdens on blacks, Hispanics, poor people and young people.

They further allege that state Republican legislators had racially discriminatory intent in passing the legislation. Experts and other witnesses, including Democratic state legislators, have testified that a shorter version of House Bill 589 passed the state House in April 2013 and then sat in a Senate committee for several months. That bill dealt exclusively with photo ID requirements.

On June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court essentially invalidated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required several states and 40 counties in North Carolina to seek federal approval for election law changes. A month later, state Republican legislators unveiled a revised House Bill 589 that passed both chambers of the General Assembly in two days, plaintiff witnesses argued.

Schroeder has told attorneys for both sides that he is particularly interested in the legal relationship between Section 5 and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Plaintiffs allege that the law violates Section 2, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting. Schroeder also said he was interested in arguments that highlight evidence of burden on racial minorities. State attorneys have argued that longer periods of early voting and same-day voter registration are merely conveniences and that reducing or eliminating them don’t constitute discrimination.

State attorneys have argued through witnesses they have called that the law poses no burdens on racial minorities. They have called several expert witnesses who point out high voter turnout of blacks in the 2014 election, when many of the law’s provisions were in place. Plaintiffs’ experts point out that the 2014 election featured the highly contentious and expensive U.S. Senate race between Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis, and have argued that the high black turnout doesn’t discount the alleged burdens or racial intent behind the law.

Neesby testified Wednesday that his own data analysis showed that there were higher mail verification failure rates among those who used same-day voter registration than those people who registered to vote 25 days before election. Plaintiffs’ attorneys objected to Neesby’s report and testimony and said that his analysis runs counter to previous reports from the State Board of Elections that showed lower failure rates for same-day voter registration.

Kim Strach, executive director of the State Board of Elections, testified last week that she had found no significant voter fraud in same-day voter registration.

Lichtman was called Thursday to rebut Neesby’s testimony. Lichtman questioned Neesby’s methodology in his data analysis and said he was surprised that the State Board of Elections did no comparative analysis of overall failure rates for mail verification between 2012 and 2014 elections.

The issue of voter fraud became a key issue in the state’s case. State Republican legislators publicly said they were pushing for the election law changes to restore people’s confidence in the election system and to stamp out potential voter fraud. There is no evidence of significant voter fraud in North Carolina or nationally.

Strach testified Wednesday that her office has received complaints from people about their perception of voter fraud. She also testified that she had recently referred 31 alleged cases of voter fraud to county prosecutors. Lorraine Minnite, a Rutgers University professor, testified for the plaintiffs that she had only found two verified cases of alleged voter fraud between 2000 and 2014 out of 35 million votes cast in primary and federal elections.

And here is the follow-up report on the closing arguments. Judge asks pointed questions of plaintiff’s attorney in closing arguments of federal voting rights trial:

The federal judge at the center of a legal challenge to North Carolina’s election law said this morning that if he were to rule in favor of the plaintiffs, he would need to know how he would fix the issue and how he would measure whether it would be enough.

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U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder interrupted Daniel Donovan, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, several times during his two-hour closing argument, asking him pointed questions about the case.

One of Schroeder’s main questions was centered on what evidence the plaintiffs had that the law placed burdens on racial minorities. Plaintiffs have argued that blacks use same-day voter registration, early voting and out-of-precinct provisional voting at higher rates than whites and that disproportionate use is connected to socio-economic and historical conditions. For example, blacks are more likely to move and thus more likely to end up in the wrong precinct on Election Day. They also are more likely to work lower-wage jobs and might not be able to have the flexibility to get off to vote and thus may use early voting at disproportionate rates.

Schroeder asked whether these were merely conveniences and pointed out several times that other states, such as New York, don’t have many of these provisions. He said would it be a Section 2 violation if North Carolina never had these provisions at all. Would it be a Section 2 violation if they were put in place to increase access specifically to black voters, Schroeder asked.

Donovan said that would be the wrong way to look at the issue. The provisions were passed to benefit everyone but blacks use them at a disproportionate rate, and Section 2 prohibits election laws that have a disproportionately negative impact on racial minorities, he said.

Donovan also argued that it doesn’t matter what other states do because Schroeder has to base his decision on the past history and the present reality in North Carolina.

Burt Russ, an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, said intent is also critical in determining whether there was a Section 2 violation. He pointed to the sequence of events in which House Bill 589 was passed. A smaller version of House Bill 589 passed the House in April 2013. It sat in a Senate Judiciary committee for several months, Russ said.

On June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling came, and a month later a much more expansive House Bill 589 emerged. That bill passed both chambers of the General Assembly in two days. McCrory signed the legislation in August 2013. Russ said state Republican legislators asked for and received demographic information that would have shown the disproportionate impact that the proposed legislation would have on black voters.

Attorneys for the defense have argued that the law is not discriminatory and that North Carolina has no obligation to provide some voting practices, such as longer periods of early voting. They have said the changes state Republicans implemented put North Carolina in the mainstream of the rest of the country.

State attorneys will do closing arguments this afternoon. Schroeder will issue a decision later this year.

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