N.C. voting law case is being heard in federal court

N.C. voting law case is  being heard in federal court
July 16
00:00 2015

In above photo: Bishop Todd Fulton speaks at press conference trial (Photo by Todd Luck for The Chronicle)

Several lawsuits have been united into one; trial will last weeks

North Carolina’s controversial changes to voting laws are currently having their day in court.

The trial in the legal case N.C. NAACP v. McCrory is currently being heard in federal court in Winston-Salem, challenging what plaintiffs say are restrictions that disenfranchise black and Latino voters on the basis of race and violate the right to vote under the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The trial began on Monday, July 13, with opening arguments.

Three lawsuits were consolidated into N.C. NAACP v. McCrory as the lead case in the trial.

Penda Hair, a lawyer with the Advancement Project, representing the N.C. NAACP, used what has become the N.C. NAACP’s mantra regarding the trial.

“This is our Selma,” she said, referring to a historic march against discriminatory voting practices during the Civil Rights Movement.

Attorneys representing the state said the law was far from discriminatory, arguing that African- American turnout in the state actually increased in 2014.

The NAACP has nearly a hundred witnesses it could call on, including lawmakers, experts and regular voters affected by the changes in voting laws.

Before the trial, the N.C. NAACP held an event in front of the federal building to sum up its case.

Among the speakers showing their support was Bishop Todd Fulton, leader of the Ministers Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity, who said the case reminded him of the biblical story of David versus Goliath.

“We are going up against a giant,” he said.

Jamie Cole, public policy and legal coordinator of the N.C. NAACP, outlined her organization’s arguments against the law as local activists and politicians flanked her.

“The law is a calculated effort to manipulate voting rights by targeting the measures that African- American and Latino voters use at significantly higher rates than white voters,” she said. “The measure has a disparate impact on voters of color and abridges the right to vote for people across the state. This is exactly what the Voting Rights Act was intended to prevent.”

The case challenges several aspects of the omnibus voting law, including the reduction of early voting from 17 to 10 days, banning out-of-precinct voting, ending same-day registration and stopping 16- to 17-year-olds from pre-registering so they would automatically be registered to vote when they turn 18.

The case also challenges the voter ID requirement that will go into effect in 2016, but those arguments will be heard at a later time because the state made changes to the law last month.

Under the changes, voters who don’t have a valid form of government-issued photo ID and have a “reasonable impediment” to acquiring one, can use their voter registration card or the last four digits of their social security number and date of birth date instead.

The reasonable impediments are lack of transportation, disability or illness, lack of birth certificate or the documents to obtain an ID, work schedule, family responsibilities, lost or stolen photo ID, they haven’t an ID yet that they applied for, and “other reasonable impediment,” which the voter will need to write a description of.

The Election Reform Act, or House Bill 589, was signed into law in August 2013.

It was one of many voting laws passed in various states shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act, which forced certain states and counties with a history of voter discrimination to get U.S. Justice Department approval when changing election laws.

The majority on the High Court said the criteria for which states got scrutiny was dated and charged Congress with coming up with a new formula, which wasn’t done.

While no longer subject to preclearance, voting law changes could be challenged as discriminatory in court under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

That’s exactly what happened with North Carolina’s Election Reform law.

The day it was signed, the N.C. NAACP and the League of Women Voters both filed suit in the state’s Middle District against the law.

A month later, the U.S. Justice Department also filed suit.

The three lawsuits, all making similar arguments, were consolidated into one for the purpose of trial, with N.C. NAACP v. McCrory as the lead case.

The NAACP case’s main plaintiff is Rosanell Eaton, a 92 year-old black woman who has lived in Louisburg, N.C., her whole life.

She was one of the first African-Americans registered to vote in Franklin County in the 1940s.

A longtime NAACP member, the lawsuit says that her ability to vote and to help others to vote, which she still does, would be hindered by longer lines and shorter early voting periods.

Also the name on her birth certificate and voter registration card doesn’t match her driver’s license, a problem it says would be a burden on her to fix and would’ve prevented her from voting before the law was changed last month.

The case has been given to U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder.

Last July, he ruled against a request to block the law from going into effect for the November 2014 election.

A Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge was more sympathetic, reversing the decision in October, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it a week later, allowing the law to go into effect for last November’s election.

The trial is expected to last several weeks and may be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

When reached for comment, Gov. Pat McCrory’s press office had no statement or comment on the trial.

The N.C. Attorney General’s office responded that, though lawyers with the office have an obligation to defend state laws challenged in court, Attorney General Roy Cooper is personally opposed to the law and urged McCrory to veto it in 2013.

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Todd Luck

Todd Luck

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