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NC’s Archaic Voting Rights Rollback Goes on Closely Watched Trial

Rev. Barber

Rev. Barber

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On Monday, trial began in a Winston-Salem, North Carolina federal courtroom to determine the fate of what one expert labeled “the worst voter suppression law since the 1960’s.”  The case, North Carolina NAACP v. McCrory, claims that a series of changes to the state’s election laws known as the North Carolina Voter Information and Verification Act of 2013 were racially motivated and aimed at disenfranchising minorities.  The legislation was swept through legislature by a Republican majority following the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which required states with histories of discrimination to get federal approval before altering their election laws

The series of changes included provisions to reduce the early voting period from 17 days to 10 days, to eliminate same-day voter registration, and to restrict out-of-district voting.  The legislation also eliminated a program which helped high school students register to vote. 

The changes originally included a restrictive photo ID requirement, which the legislature weakened in the face of protests before the 2014 general election.  Now, these concepts and the motives behind their passage are on trial. No matter the decision, the issue is likely to make its way to the Supreme Court.  

Proving there was an “intent to discriminate” will be a tall task for lawyers, despite the proof in the turnout pudding. Via NPR:

For decades in the state, black voter turnout lagged far behind white turnout. Then, in 2000, state lawmakers opened up an early voting period. In 2005, they said voters could cast ballots outside their assigned precinct. And in 2007, they enabled same-day registration.

After those changes, attorney Allison Riggs says, black voter registration and turnout surged.

“They had their intended effect of evening the playing field in the state, and the Legislature yanked that away,” she says.

When the Department of Justice joined the lawsuit, then-Attorney General Eric Holder noted how troubling it was that early voting was being affected given its positive effect on getting African-Americans to the polls.  In the past two presidential elections, nearly 70 percent of black voters cast their votes early, compared to 50 percent of white voters. 

“It is especially troubling that the law would significantly narrow the early voting window that enabled hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians,” Holder noted at the time, “including a disproportionately large number of minority voters, to cast ballots.”

Early voting has been the focus of the conversation, but same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting are of equal importance.  In an op-ed for The Huffington Post, Dale Ho, Director of the ACLU’s voting rights project, explained his group’s case against the changes.  The ACLU is a co-counselor, along with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, in the legal challenge:

Same-Day Registration. Before 2014, North Carolina was one of about a dozen states that allowed voters to register to vote and cast a ballot in one stop to a voting site. Same-day registration is an important reform: States that have same-day registration have turnout that is, on average, 10 percentage points higher than other states. In the last two presidential elections, over 90,000 North Carolina voters used same-day registration. In particular, African-Americans relied on same-day registration at nearly twice the rate of white voters. For some voters, the opportunity to register and to cast a ballot simultaneously means the difference in voting or not. But North Carolina has now eliminated same-day registration.

Out-of-Precinct Votes. If a duly registered voter appeared at the wrong precinct — whether by accident or due to poll-worker error — North Carolina used to count that voter’s ballot for all offices for which that person was eligible. This made sense. It doesn’t matter where you vote for certain statewide offices like senator or governor. Thousands of voters’ ballots were counted as a result. But the state has now ended that practice: Ballots cast at the wrong precinct — even if due to no fault of the voter — will now be discarded.

The commencement of the trial resulted in protests, including a 1,000-person march through downtown Winston-Salem. A rally was held just blocks from the courthouse. 

The first person to testify in the trial was Rev. William Barber, the organizer and face of the “Moral Mondays” movement that spawned from the GOP’s voter suppression effort.  Preaching at Union Baptist Church the night before the rally, Rev. Barber said:

“This was a racist attack on our sacred right to vote, a right that was won with blood and the lives and souls of martyrs throughout the south.  50 years after Bloody Sunday, we find ourselves having to have our own Selma now, because of the worst voter suppression law we’ve seen since the 1960s. I say we’re at war. But the weapons of our warfare are not molotov cocktails, or guns or hatred. The weapons of our warfare are love and truth and righteousness and a concern for justice.”

The case is expected to last a few weeks and could set a precedent for others states who made similar changes to election laws after sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were struck down.  Among these states is Texas, where the state’s redistricting plan and voter ID law currently await trial.  Rev. Barber insists the trial will be a bellwether:

“This case will determine how cases are dealt with all over this country. If we win, we will stop legislators across the U.S. from rolling back voting rights. They will understand they cannot do this.  This case will also show Congress they must fix Section 4 and reinstate Section 5 [of the Voting Rights Act] so that states like North Carolina are covered.”


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