WINSTON-SALEM — The legal fight over some of the more controversial provisions of North Carolina’s elections overhaul bill brought an array of arguments and a crowd of lawyers to a federal courtroom Monday.
The U.S. Justice Department, the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters and lawyers representing seven college students testing a novel legal argument all hope to persuade a U.S. district judge to block provisions of the 2013 law until their lawsuits have been heard.
The lawyers said the new provisions could have a discriminatory effect on their clients in the statewide election in November and in local elections next spring.
Meanwhile, state attorneys defending the Republican-led General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory contend that blocking the provisions now would disrupt the election cycle that began with the May primary.
North Carolina’s fight over the 2013 elections law has received national and international media attention recently.
When legislators began discussing the bill in spring 2013, they focused on a photo ID provision and a few other changes. But the measure grew to more than two dozen new provisions by the time it was adopted and signed into law last summer.
The voter ID provision, slated to go into effect in 2016, has been portrayed by critics as one of the toughest ID laws in the nation.
But the challengers in federal court Monday said other provisions of the law could have discriminatory effects, too.
The law ends same-day voter registration, cuts the number of early voting days by a week and does away with a popular voting preregistration program for 16- and 17-year-olds.
Penda Hair, an attorney representing the NAACP, drew parallels between the challengers’ concerns over voting rights now and similar battles waged nearly 50 years ago during the civil rights era.
“We can never forget that we walk on sacred ground when dealing with African-American and Latino voting rights,” Hair said.
Over the next several days, Hair said, challengers will call witnesses to bolster claims that decreasing the number of days for early voting, ending same-day registration and no longer allowing teens to preregister to vote in high schools and at driver’s license offices discriminate against African-Americans, Latinos and the poor.
State Sen. Dan Blue, a Democrat from Wake County and a legislator with some inside knowledge about the workings of the General Assembly, took the stand Monday.
Blue was critical of a 2013 provision that expands the power of poll observers and elections challengers.
“There is a special psychological thing in the black community about voting,” Blue said. “There are a number of people – not me – who are new to the process and are distrustful. … When you see somebody in a suit and tie in a precinct that is mainly an African-American precinct, some people are intimidated.”
Alexander Peters, North Carolina deputy attorney general, contended that voting statistics from the May primary showed an increase in turnout among minorities when compared with the 2010 primary. He argued that attorneys for the challengers had not yet presented any evidence of voter disenfranchisement and that their briefs in the court record and statements in previous hearings were only speculative about the effects.
“It’s clearly not in the public interest to switch the rules in the middle of the election,” Peters said.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder is presiding over the hearing, a proceeding that could last through the week. A judge for the Middle District of North Carolina since 2008, Schroeder was nominated by former President George W. Bush.
The core of the legal arguments will be saved for July 2015, when the trial is scheduled. Schroeder is being asked which election rules will be in place until then. It is not clear whether he will rule at the close of this week’s hearing or later.
One of the arguments being made about the potential discriminatory effects is a legal tactic that many attorneys are watching closely.
Seven college students and three voter-registration advocates are arguing that the ID provision violates the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18 from 21.
The amendment, adopted in 1971, guarantees that the right of citizens 18 or older to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.”
Marc Elias, an attorney for the 2008 Al Franken for Senate campaign in Minnesota and general counsel for the John Kerry-John Edwards 2004 campaign, told the judge Monday that he did not plan to call witnesses for this week’s hearing on the requested injunction of the 2013 rules.
But Elias said he plans to argue that the changes to North Carolina’s election law were intended to make it more difficult for young people to vote.
Republicans who advocated for the changes say the provisions adopted last year were intended to prevent fraud.
They contend that their actions are not designed to curb the electoral participation of students, who no longer would be able to use their campus-issued IDs at the polls. Advocates of the new provision said they were trying to prevent students from submitting absentee ballots in their home states and then also voting in their college towns, though they have not presented any cases of that happening.
Critics of the changes contend that claims and worries about fraud prevent are unfounded. Few cases have been brought in North Carolina.
Josue Bardo, 20, an economics major at N.C. State University, is one of the students named in the lawsuit. Though he is from Asheville and has a state-issued ID, he said he worries that some of his fellow students will arrive at the polls with student ID cards and out-of-state licenses and not be able to vote.
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1