In a federal courtroom with room for fewer than 100 people in the gallery, an army of attorneys has spent the past week arguing over whether North Carolina’s voter ID law harms the fundamental right to vote.
The trial, which ended Monday, has garnered national attention as courts across the country wrestle with questions about identification laws adopted in the name of preventing voter fraud but criticized as politically motivated attempts to disenfranchise voters of color. It’s unclear when a ruling will come, but it is certain to be appealed.
For many, the case has been a test of what the Voting Rights Act of 1965 means today, almost three years after the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a key provision of the 50-year-old law.
When the country’s highest court freed Southern states that year from the requirement that federal authorities approve any proposed election law changes to ensure no harm to minority voters, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “Our country has changed.”
But in North Carolina, where the 2013 election law overhaul containing the new voter ID requirement was pushed through the General Assembly shortly after that ruling, attorneys for and against the new voting rules have debated whether history is on the verge of repeating itself.
In court on Monday, U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder had pointed questions for each side as they made their last verbal pitches to him.
For the attorneys arguing for the NAACP and U.S. Department of Justice, which joined in the lawsuit against the state, the judge asked why he did not have more cases before him of people unable to obtain IDs.
“I don’t think we have full data on people who tried or were unable to get IDs,” responded Penda Hair, an attorney with the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization representing the NAACP.
North Carolina is one of 21 states that have added voting restrictions since the 2010 elections and one of 15 states in which the rules will be in place for the first time in a presidential election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Schroeder asked Tom Farr, one of the attorneys representing the state lawmakers, why legislators amended the ID law in 2015 to give voters an option of casting a provisional ballot if they could show a “reasonable impediment” to obtaining one of the six approved photo identification cards.
Schroeder also asked why the Republican-led Senate in 2013 dramatically altered a far less restrictive voter ID law that had been introduced and approved in the state House of Representatives before the key portion of the Voting Rights Act was invalidated.
The provision went from one in the House that would have allowed voters to present IDs other than the six that ended up on the list to a rule that prohibits student IDs and other forms of government-issued IDs. Farr argued that legislators wanted one state agency to be in charge of issuing IDs.
Schroeder also asked Farr if he should assume from the “reasonable impediment” amendment adopted “in the 11th hour” that lawmakers had figured out that some voters would not be able to vote without it.
“It did kind of pass in the 11th hour, didn’t it?” Schroeder asked Farr. “Is that how things are normally done in Raleigh?”
“I don’t know that there’s anything in the record that explains it, your Honor,” Farr responded.
Since the trial started a week ago on a snowy and icy Monday, both sides have presented lots of data and reports to support claims of what the ID law could do and shouldn’t do.
Farr contended in his closing statement that everything offered by the challengers was “speculative” and not evidence of disenfranchisement.
Hair argued otherwise.
The parties offered competing numbers and interpretations of data gathered from voter rolls and various methods for scrutinizing it.
Janet Thornton, a labor economist at Economic Research Services in Florida, was on the stand most of Monday morning, criticizing the work of Charles Stewart, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who matched databases from the State Board of Elections to the state Division of Motor Vehicles. Stewart concluded the numbers showed blacks were twice as likely to lack an ID as whites. Thornton testified on Monday that it was difficult to know exactly how many people did not have an ID, but she concluded that Stewart had overestimated the impact.
Rosanell Eaton, 94, a longtime advocate for voting rights, sat in the front row of the courtroom Monday. Through court documents and video testimony, the African-American woman from Louisburg has shared her experience of going in a mule-drawn wagon to register to vote some seven decades ago and having to recite the preamble to the Constitution, which she did.
In the video played for the judge last week on the first day of the trial, Eaton elaborated on her attempt last year to obtain an ID that had all her names in correct order with an accurate birthdate. She was born in the days when midwives recorded birth dates and other information. Last year, she made 10 trips – to her local driver’s license office, to the bank to obtain personal documents, to Social Security offices in Raleigh and home again – to get an ID that she was certain would allow her to vote.
On Monday, Eaton stopped outside the courthouse with the Rev. William J. Barber II, head of the state NAACP, upset that on the first day of Black History Month she was talking about voting rights half a century after the civil rights movement. “I’m disgusted,” the soft-spoken woman said. “This fight is different.”
Schroeder will review thousands of pages of documents and ponder testimony and arguments.
He will weigh whether Southern states with long histories of discrimination can adopt ID laws that do not disenfranchise minorities.
He will consider similarities and differences with South Carolina’s ID law, which also has a “reasonable impediment” clause but issues IDs to voters at elections offices.
The question of disenfranchisement could boil down to whether North Carolina’s addition of the “reasonable impediment” clause made moot any racial discrimination claims.
Attorneys for the challengers tried to convince him that wasn’t the case.
Though voters with legitimate excuses to not being able to obtain an ID will be able to cast a ballot that could be counted provisionally, Hair and Justice Department attorneys argued that not all would want to give such personal information to poll workers, and many who already were less than trusting of government feared the potential for unwarranted challenges.
Attorneys for challengers also argued that though the law was adopted with lawmakers describing it as a measure to prevent fraud, their experts pointed out that absentee ballots were more vulnerable but not covered by the ID rule.
“You did not hear a single piece of evidence of voter fraud,” Michael Glick, an attorney with the Justice Department, told reporters gathered outside the courthouse after the trial. “You didn’t see a single member of the General Assembly who voted for this law come and defend it.”