Federal judge considers far-reaching effects of NC's voting-rights case

ablythe@newsobserver.comJuly 10, 2014 

— U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder had lots of questions Thursday for attorneys arguing for and against some of the more controversial provisions of North Carolina’s election overhaul bill.

In considering what voting laws will be in place for the November elections, Schroeder told the attorneys he wanted to consider the national sweep of any decisions.

“The parties are asking me to make a ruling that could potentially have some odd consequences on other states,” Schroeder said while listening to the closing arguments of a U.S. Justice Department attorney.

The federal government, NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union, League of Women Voters and other organizations filed lawsuits late last summer challenging the elections overhaul bill adopted by the Republican-led legislature in July 2013 and signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory.

The challengers contend the new law discriminates against African-Americans, Latinos and voters younger than 25. They’re seeking to block provisions that end same-day registration, curb the number of days on which people can vote early, do away with a popular teen preregistration program and prohibit people from casting ballots out of their assigned precinct.

Schroeder said at the close of four days of arguments that he would take all points under advisement and issue a ruling “sooner rather than later.”

“I wouldn’t expect anything in the next week or so,” said Schroeder, named by President George W. Bush to the federal bench.

Without indicating how he might rule, Schroeder asked the attorneys for the state how much advance notice county boards of election and other officials would need if he blocked provisions of the 2013 overhaul bill until the lawsuit challenging them could be fully heard.

The current schedule sets a trial for July 2015, but the challengers contend that provisions used in the May primary and primary runoff elections should be rolled back for the November general election.

North Carolina voters will go to the polls Nov. 4 to decide a U.S. Senate race of national interest – the contest between Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat from Greensboro, and Republican challenger, Thom Tillis, the N.C. House speaker.

Thomas Farr, a Raleigh attorney in private practice representing the state, contended that primary results showed an uptick in African-American voter turnout from the 2010 primary. Farr; Alexander Peters, deputy state attorney general; and Phil Strach, a private-practice attorney and husband of state elections director Kim Strach, argued that the challengers had failed to show significant problems from the new provisions.

They called the testimony from the challengers’ witnesses about the potential for voter intimidation and disenfranchisement as little more than “speculation” and “opinion.”

The challengers argued otherwise and urged the judge to return to the election rules in place before the General Assembly vote of 2013.

During the first three days of the hearing, the array of attorneys representing the challengers called 11 witnesses – voters, two Democratic legislators, a former elections official and two statistical analysts.

The case has received international publicity, in part, because of the provision requiring voters to have a photo ID at the polls in 2016.

The provision has been described by supporters as a way to prevent fraud. Critics hold up recent court decisions in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arkansas striking down voter ID provisions and argue that such measures are meant to create an undue hardship on minorities and the poor, who often are more likely to support Democrats at the polls.

Attorneys representing the General Assembly, governor and state board of elections did not call any witnesses in the hearing this week. They cross-examined those called by the challengers and then spent nearly two hours on Thursday elaborating on their objections to the blocking of the 2013 changes in closing arguments. They argued that the 2013 rules had the same effect on all voters.

The attorneys for the state contended that though the challengers might disagree with the policies behind the law, debate on those differences would take place more appropriately in the political chambers of power, not in the courts. Their interpretations of voting statistics, they argued, did not show voter disenfranchisement.

“At the end of the day,” Farr said, “people are not robots. They have the ability to control their own conducts.”

But experts and voters earlier in the week testified about North Carolina’s long and established history of voter discrimination against blacks. Poll taxes were on the books until the 1920s. Black voters recalled this week having to pass literacy tests.

Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis., recounted a chapter in North Carolina history after the Civil War in which black men had been granted the right to vote and did so in large numbers. With that increase in participation came a push by white legislators to change the law to make it more difficult for blacks to vote, Burden said.

Those obstacles remained for many years, Burden testified, until 2000, when state legislators expanded opportunities for voters to cast their ballots early and to register the same day as they voted.

The challengers contend the election overhauls bill violates a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that was adopted to protect voters from racial discrimination.

They also contend it violates the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971.

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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