Voting Rights Act trial begins in North Carolina

The New York Times has reporter Erik Eckholm in Winston-Salem, NC covering this Voting Right Act trial that opened on Monday. Sides Dispute Basis of North Carolina Voting Laws as Trial Contesting Them Opens:

WillimaBarberA trial over North Carolina’s voting laws opened in a federal courtroom here on Monday, with civil rights groups and the Justice Department arguing that the state had turned back the clock with sweeping changes to its election laws, while the state said the revisions applied equally to all and left its voting rules well within the national mainstream.

“The history of North Carolina is not on trial here,” said Butch Bowers, a lawyer representing Gov. Pat McCrory, in an opening statement. “We will show that there is no discrimination, intentional or otherwise.”

The plaintiffs in the case said the legislation, enacted in 2013, was deliberately drafted to reduce voting by African-Americans. They say the legacy of past racism in North Carolina, including the social and economic disparities between black and white citizens, is deeply relevant.

The contested measures reduced early voting days, ended same-day registration, ended out-of-precinct voting and halted the preregistration of 16- and 17-year-old high school students. These measures had been adopted in the past 15 years to increase voter participation and were disproportionately used by black, Hispanic and younger voters.

The Republican-dominated state legislature adopted the changes only weeks after the United States Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when it ended a requirement that election changes in North Carolina and eight other states with a history of racial discrimination in voting be preapproved by federal officials or courts.

The trial here could set an important precedent nationally, helping to define the scope of voter rights protections in a new era that lacks that federal preapproval requirement. North Carolina is one of several states that have recently altered voting procedures in ways that, civil rights groups have said, make voting harder for racial minorities, who on average are less affluent, less educated and more likely to move.

The discriminatory effects were “neither accidental nor unforeseen,” said Catherine Meza, a lawyer with the Department of Justice, in an opening statement.

The case is being tried before Judge Thomas D. Schroeder of Federal District Court, without a jury. Judge Schroeder will have to decide whether the changes did have an illegal impact on minority voters and, if so, whether the effects were intentional. If, after a trial that he said could take four weeks, he finds that the state engaged in deliberate discrimination, he will have to decide whether to grant the Justice Department’s request to reinstate federal pre-clearance of election amendments in North Carolina.

In a hearing before the 2014 elections, Judge Schroeder, an appointee of George W. Bush, declined to impose a preliminary injunction of the election law. He was overruled by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which found evidence of an unconstitutional impact and laid out new principles for evaluating changes in election law. But the Supreme Court lifted the injunction, without comment, perhaps because it did not want to alter the rules too close to the fall elections.

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The state, in its opening comments, said that the measures were adopted to enhance voter confidence and achieve administrative savings, and that they were not discriminatory because they affected all races equally.

The state’s lawyers also accused the plaintiffs of making emotional appeals to past racial conflicts, like the refrain of the state branch of the N.A.A.C.P. in the weeks leading up to the trial that “This is our Selma.”

“What is the dastardly thing North Carolina has done?” asked Thomas A. Farr, a private lawyer who is defending the state. The state, he said, has created election conditions that are common across the country. Some other states, like New York, do not have early voting, same-day voting or out-of-precinct voting, he noted.

But it is the particular conditions and their context in North Carolina that are at issue, say many legal experts.

“The law teaches it is the impact that matters — an impact that is linked to social and historical conditions — not whether a law explicitly says African-American or Latinos are not allowed to vote,” Ms. Hair said.

After opening statements, the plaintiffs called their first witnesses — several individuals who had tried to vote in 2014 but were unsuccessful because of the rules changes. One of them, Gwendolyn Farrington of Durham, said that because of past moves she had kept her mother’s house, distant from where she lives now, as a mailing address.

In the fall of 2014, she said, she was working 12 hours a day, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., in an auto parts factory. She tried voting after work, before picking up her two sons, at the polling place nearest to her job, but was told she would have to travel across town or fill out a provisional ballot.

What she did not realize, she said, was that the ballot, under the new law, would not be counted.

“This is unfair,” she told the court.

For more trial coverage, see Ari Berman of The Nation. Why North Carolina Is the New Selma:

Now the law is back in court and voters turned away because of the new restrictions testified on day one of the trial. (The state’s new voter ID law was unexpectedly softened by the legislature last month and is not part of the proceedings.)

Dale Hicks, a 39-year-old former sergeant in the Marine Corps, moved from Camp Lejeune in Onslow County to Raleigh in Wake County after returning from a 13-month deployment in Afghanistan. When he went to vote in his new hometown on October 31, 2014, Hicks was told he could not vote since the registration deadline had passed, and he could no longer update his registration because North Carolina had eliminated same-day registration. “It made me feel like I was being stifled,” he said in court. “It made me feel like I was being told to shut up.”

Gwendolyn Farrington of Durham also could not vote in 2014. She works 72 hours a week at a Toyota assembly plant and doesn’t get time off her shift, which ends at 6 pm, to vote. Farrington went to vote at the closest precinct to her work so that she could cast a ballot before polls closed at 7:30 and then pick up her sons. But because North Carolina eliminated out-of-precinct voting, Farrigton’s ballot wasn’t counted. “I am very upset about it,” Farrington said in court. “I’m a registered voter. We have a right to vote just like anyone else. Everyone doesn’t have a lenient job or transportation. This is unfair.”

Such stories were all too typical in 2014 and will be magnified in 2016—the first presidential election in over 50 years without the full protections of the VRA.

For years, North Carolina was one of the success stories of the voting-rights struggle. In March 1965, when LBJ introduced the VRA, 46.8 percent of black North Carolinians were registered to vote, compared with 96.8 percent of whites. Decades after the passage of the VRA, the gap had narrowed but remained significant. But between 2000 and 2012—after the adoption of key voting reforms like early voting, same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting—black turnout increased by 65 percent and in 2008 and 2012 African-Americans registered and voted at a higher rate than whites for the first time in state history.

North Carolina’s overall turnout jumped from 37th to 11th nationally during the same period.

It was only then that North Carolina Republicans decided to drastically rewrite the state’s election laws by hyping the threat of voter fraud, even though there were only two cases of voter impersonation from 2000 to 2012, when 21 million votes were cast, totaling 0.0000095 percent of total votes.

In three weeks the country will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the VRA, the most important civil-rights law of the 20th century. Many will note the tremendous accomplishments of the act and how much progress the nation has made as a result.

But this is not a time for celebration. Voting rights are at risk across the country—nowhere more so than in North Carolina. The Confederate flag has finally come down in South Carolina, but North Carolina is still fighting to the last battle of the Civil War.

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