Day 1 of North Carolina's Weeks-Long Trial on Voting Rights

by | July 14, 2015

By Anne Blythe

The Rev. William Barber, head of the NAACP and an architect of the high-profile protest movement challenging much of the Republican agenda in North Carolina, has spent two years dogging key legislative leaders and the governor about sweeping changes to the elections law.

On Monday, during the first day of a federal trial on whether key provisions of the 2013 overhaul pass constitutional muster, attorneys for the lawmakers had their chance to cross-examine Barber.

They asked the civil rights leader, who has described the federal trial as "our Selma," whether he had told participants of an NAACP banquet to intentionally vote at the wrong precinct to skew numbers. Barber said he told voters to vote as they usually did, asking for provisional ballots if needed.

They also questioned him about comments he made during a pre-trial deposition about NAACP members having identification to vote in the organization's elections.

Barber, one of seven witnesses to testify either in person or by video during the opening day of the trial, responded that his organization had paying members. He questioned, to laughter in the courtroom, whether attorneys for the lawmakers were suggesting that North Carolina have poll taxes again.

The present discussion of voting laws was steeped in the past.

"This case is grounded in a pivotal moment in North Carolina and U.S. history," said Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, a racial justice organization representing the NAACP at the trial. "For many African Americans in this courtroom and outside, the fight for equal voting rights is not ancient history. It is lived experience. ... The struggle to gain the right to vote in this state has been an arduous, slow effort to overcome one barrier placed in the path of African Americans after another."

Butch Bowers, an attorney representing Gov. Pat McCrory, acknowledged North Carolina's history of discrimination.

But, he said, "the history of North Carolina is not on trial here."

The law changes, he said, applied "equally to everyone, regardless of race."

The lawyers arguing for and against the North Carolina's election law overhaul will get 45 hours for each side.

In opening statements that lasted about an hour and a half, attorneys for the voters and the voting rights organizations challenging key aspects of the overhaul laid out a guide for what they expected to present in the coming weeks.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder, who will preside over the trial, has removed the Voter ID portion from the proceedings. The N.C. General Assembly amended that portion of the law, which until the change had been described as the most restrictive in the country.

Schroeder will rule in the case without a jury. In a packed courtroom where space limitations left many turned away from the first day of the trial, the judge heard from four witnesses in the morning who testified either in person or by video about their difficulties voting last year.

The U.S. Justice Department, NAACP, League of Women Voters and an organization representing young voters argue that the changes made by the GOP-led legislature two years ago were designed to disenfranchise minority and young voters, who often lean Democratic.

In addition to the adoption of a Voter ID law that required voters to present one of six approved photo identification cards to cast a ballot, North Carolina also adopted measures that:

_Scale back the number of days for early voting;

_End the process of registering and voting on the same day;

_Prohibit casting a ballot out of the precinct where the voter is registered; and

_Do away with preregistration programs for 16- and 17-year-olds.

The trial comes amid a time when Southern states are being called on to confront histories of discrimination and slavery – as in the recent debate in South Carolina over the furling of the Confederate flag.

The challengers to North Carolina's election law overhaul argued in many ways that the measures push the state back toward the days of poll taxes and literacy tests at the voting booth.

Republicans who shepherded the changes through initially described the measures as ones meant to ensure clean and fraud-free elections. They also talked about cost savings in cutting down on the number of days for early voting.

On more than one occasion, witnesses and attorneys recalled the "Bloody Sunday" protest 50 years ago on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala., where civil rights crusaders risked their lives to fight for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the heart of the act when it ended a requirement that nine states with histories of discrimination, including North Carolina, get federal approval before altering voter laws.

The act served as a "fragile historical bridge" to a time 50 years ago when black voters were not largely represented at the voting booth.

But in the first decade of the new millennium, the state adopted early voting, pre-registration for teens and other changes that increased voting participation.

Thomas Farr, an attorney representing the state, said in his opening statements that none of the changes was any more discriminatory toward one race than the other. He said everybody has the same opportunity to vote, and he pointed out that other states in the country, such as New York, do not have early voting periods or out of precinct voting.

He also pointed to the 2014, when turnout was high with a high-profile U.S. Senate race on the ballot, as evidence that black voters had not been disenfranchised.

"What we've heard throughout this case is that this is another Selma and that's a pretty strong accusation," Farr said.

What had happened, Farr added, was that the legislature "enacted election regulations that represent the majority rule in the country."

But Hair and other attorneys for the challengers argued that North Carolina's history of discrimination puts it in a different category from that of many other states and the witnesses on the first day highlighted their distrust in the system that allowed them to cast provisional ballots in the previous election, for a variety of reasons, that did not end up counting toward the overall results.

Provisional ballots come into play when a race is down to the wire. They are counted after Election Day.

"These are voter suppressions in search of a pretext," Hair said, recalling the scant evidence of fraud, the lack of detailed explanations from legislators why the changes were needed.

Maria Palmer, a Chapel Hill city council member and longtime Latino leader, talked about trying to help voters whose first language was not English understand the new rules. Palmer, like others who testified, said she often ran into confusing or inaccurate information from poll workers and election officials.

A Cleveland County man gave a detailed story about trying to vote after changing his registration through the DMV, then discovering at an early voting site that his registration did not appear.

The first day of the trial was capped by a march and rally, organized by the NAACP, through downtown Winston-Salem. Several thousand gathered in a church on Sunday night for a prayer service.

(c)2015 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)