By Anne Blythe

A Wisconsin political science professor told a federal judge Monday that if North Carolina legislators were worried about voter fraud, he thought they would have focused more attention on the process for casting absentee ballots.

Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republican-led legislature that shepherded the state's new voter ID requirement into law have touted the measure as one necessary to prevent voter fraud and preserve the integrity of elections.

Barry Burden, from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, testified as a witness for voters and organizations challenging the voter ID law. His research focuses on election administration, voting behavior and civic engagement.

The director of the Wisconsin university's newly created Elections Research Center, offered his opinions on the first day of a federal trial about whether it is lawful to require N.C. voters to present photo identification to cast a ballot in local, state and national elections.

Burden, on the stand for about two hours on the first day of a trial expected to last through the week, said he thought the elections law overhaul in 2013 and amended in 2015 would place a greater burden on black and Latino voters than whites and would do little to prevent fraud.

"If the rationale were to prevent voter fraud," Burden said, "it would focus on absentee ballots. ...The consensus is fraud is more common among mail ballots."

The cost of obtaining one of the six approved IDs in North Carolina, as well as the efforts that some would have to go through to get one, could also dissuade would-be voters from following through with all the steps.

In 2015, on the eve of the federal trial challenging other portions of the 2013 elections law overhaul, the legislature changed the ID requirement. Instead of turning away voters with no identification card, poll workers would offer those who could show a "reasonable impediment" to getting one an opportunity to cast a provisional ballot that would be counted if the impediment were upheld.

Though the exact details for how that process would work have not been fully described, Burden added that he thought the amended ID law still would have a greater impact on black and Latino voters.

Thomas Farr, one of the attorneys representing state lawmakers, contends there is no evidence that blacks and Hispanics will be unduly burdened by the ID requirements. Ninety-four percent of black registered voters have a required ID, he said. He argued that the U.S. Justice Department, the NAACP and others challenging the ID requirement simply don't like it.

"That's not enough," Farr said.

Burden talked about lingering racial inequities and differences from county to county in North Carolina that could create more barriers for black and Hispanic voters who don't have an acceptable ID -- a North Carolina driver's license, provisional license or learner's permit; a special non-operator's ID card; a U.S. passport; a tribal enrollment card issued by a federally or state recognized tribe; an ID issued by another state subject to certain limitations; or a military or veterans ID card.

Attorneys for the challengers presented video testimony from several people who offered details of their efforts for getting IDs.

Rosanell Eaton, 94, is a Louisburg resident and one of the lead plaintiffs challenging the 2013 elections law overhaul.

Eaton, whose birth was recorded by a midwife, had to make several different trips to a state Division of Motor Vehicles office, several trips to Social Security offices in Henderson and Raleigh, and then back to the DMV office -- 10 in all -- to get an ID.

Because her name was spelled differently on several different documents, Eaton and her daughter drove about 100 miles and spent more than 60 hours trying to get everything to match for an ID that would cast no doubt about her right to vote.

"It took her 10 trips," Penda Hair, an Advancement Project attorney representing the challengers, said. "She had to go to the DMV in her own county. Then she went to a Social Security office in Henderson. Then she went to the Social Security office in Raleigh, and all the people were telling her they couldn't help her, they couldn't fix the problem."

Sylvia Kent, a woman who recently returned to North Carolina to help her three disabled sisters, shared similar experiences of trying to get IDs for them.

Faydeen Villines, 70, and Esther Margret Villines, 68, live in Roxboro and have enjoyed going to the polls all their adult lives.

Kent clips out newspaper articles for them and they watch election news on TV, then go and vote for local, state and national elections.

The last time Kent took her sisters to vote, a poll worker told them that would need an ID to vote in the future, so she began to investigate how to get one.

One sister, Katherine Villines, had no trouble getting an ID. But the other two had to have their birth certificates amended -- someone had put down the wrong birthdays and misspelled their names.

Kent described several unsuccessful efforts at DMV offices and other state and county offices in trying to get everything to match up.

She told attorneys for the state that she was not sure why the birth certificates had the wrong date, but noted they were not recorded until the 1960s and her sisters were born in the 1940s. She wondered whether the midwives had inaccurate records that they shared with county and state offices.

While Eaton and Kent kept pushing for answers, Hair and other attorneys for the challengers speculate that others would not persevere.

"They may give up and not get the ID," Hair said.

The trial is expected to last through the week.

It is unclear when U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder will issue a ruling in the case.

(c)2016 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)