by Michael Hewitt, Winston-Salem Journal, July 13, 2015.
In a crowded second-floor federal courtroom, North Carolina’s controversial election law went on trial, and along with it, the state’s complicated racial history, less than a month before the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The N.C. NAACP, the League of Women Voters, the U.S. Department of Justice and others are suing North Carolina and Gov. Pat McCrory over the 2013 Voter Information Verification Act. A month after the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, state Republican legislators pushed an expanded bill that eliminated same-day voter registration, reduced early voting from 17 days to 10, prohibited out-of-county precinct voting and got rid of preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds, among other provisions. U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder is presiding over the trial, which is expected to last two weeks. Schroeder will issue his opinion at a later date.
Schroeder has set aside the legal fight over North Carolina’s photo identification requirement to vote in person in 2016 because lawmakers last month eased the mandate.
The trial is being closely watched across North Carolina and nationally. The case represents the first challenge to a state’s election law that has made it to trial since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling on the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That ruling invalidated the requirement that certain states and other communities seek federal approval for changes in election laws.
In opening arguments Monday, Penda Hair, one of the attorneys for the state NAACP and co-director of the Advancement Project, said the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has represented a “fragile bridge” between the country’s history of past and present racial discrimination and “the future we wish to have as Americans of racial equality.”
“For many African-Americans in this courtroom and outside, the fight for equal voting rights in this state is not ancient history,” she said. “It is lived experience.”
But attorneys for North Carolina and McCrory rejected the idea that the state’s election law is racially discriminatory and expressed offense at comparisons of the case to the 1965 civil rights marches in Selma, Ala. They acknowledged North Carolina’s past but argued that the history is not on trial.
The Rev. William Barber, the president of the state NAACP, has said, “This is our Selma,” referring to the federal trial.
“What is the dastardly thing that North Carolina has done that has been equated to the events in Selma?” Tom Farr, a private attorney representing the state, asked in his opening arguments. Farr said the challenged provisions are the law in a majority of the 50 states.
Farr and other defense attorneys argued that black turnout increased in the 2014 election — when some of the provisions were put into place — compared to four years earlier.
“I think it’s hard to say that’s purposeful discrimination,” he said.
Witnesses tell their stories
But plaintiffs called witnesses who testified that black voters may have voted more in 2014 but they also faced heavier burdens.
The Rev. Moses Colbert, who is black and lives in Cleveland County, testified that he tried to update his voter registration at the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles after he moved from Gaston County. But his voter registration was not updated and he ran into trouble when he tried to vote early in the 2014 election.
Colbert testified that he first went to a polling site in Cleveland County but election workers couldn’t find his record. He was told he had to vote in Gaston County, but he said he was rejected there because his driver’s license had his Cleveland County address.
He and his wife returned to the same polling site in Cleveland County where he was told he had to cast a provisional ballot. That ballot was not counted, according to Allison Riggs, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
Colbert testified that it took almost an entire day to travel to and from Cleveland County. He said he has always voted because he felt an obligation because of the sacrifices that blacks before him had made. Colbert, 61, said his grandfather was born a slave.
“It made me feel really deprived,” he said. “I just didn’t feel good about it.”
But under cross-examination by state attorney Butch Bowers, Colbert said he was self-employed and that he made his own schedule. He also said that he is currently registered to vote in Cleveland County.
In a video deposition that was played in court, Yvonne Washington, who lives in Goldsboro, said that she has cancer and her husband uses a cane.
Washington said she and her husband tried to vote in 2014 at the library but were told that her precinct was at another site. She and her husband would have to walk but because of her cancer and his disability, they wouldn’t have been able to make it.
They also didn’t have easy access to transportation, she said. Farr suggested in his cross-examination that she might have had other options for transportation.
He also pointed out in his cross-examination that she didn’t check where her precinct was before she went to the library to vote.
Washington said in the video that she was told to cast a provisional ballot but that it didn’t count.
“I was very mad because it don’t make no sense,” she said.