State Politics

State begins case in NC elections trial

Demonstrators march through the streets of Winston-Salem on July 13, 2015, after the beginning of a federal voting rights trial challenging a 2013 state law.
Demonstrators march through the streets of Winston-Salem on July 13, 2015, after the beginning of a federal voting rights trial challenging a 2013 state law. AP

For the past two weeks, U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder has presided over a crowded federal courtroom as lawyers challenging key provisions of the state’s election law presented witness after witness.

This week, attorneys for the state began presenting their witnesses to counter claims by the NAACP, League of Women Voters and others that a 2013 North Carolina voting law overhaul was a not-so-subtle attempt to limit the participation of black, Hispanic and young voters in the electoral process.

The trial, which could wrap up late this week, will determine whether legislators were discriminating against groups of voters when they:

▪  Curbed the number of days for casting ballots early;

▪  Prohibited people from registering to vote and casting ballots on the same day;

▪  Kept people from casting provisional ballots if they went to the wrong precinct to vote; and

▪  Ended a popular pre-registration program for 16- and 17-year-olds.

On Monday, Trey Hood, a University of Georgia professor of political science, testified he could find no evidence that limiting the number of early-voting days had discouraged a significant number of people from voting.

Hood compared turnout rates between the midterm elections in 2010 and 2014, according to a report in The Winston-Salem Journal, and found the overall turnout to be higher in 2014. The turnout rate among black voters was higher, too.

Hood acknowledged that black voters cast ballots during the shortened period of early voting at rates higher than whites, but he added that he could find no evidence in the data he analyzed to show the changes “hindered the people to vote early.”

That runs counter to numerous voters who testified either in person or by video during the previous two weeks of the nationally watched trial.

Dale Hicks, 39, a former Marine Corps sergeant, testified on the first day of the trial that he was upset about his inability to vote in 2014 after moving to Raleigh from Camp Lejeune in Onslow County. Hicks had returned from a 13-month deployment in Afghanistan and went to cast a ballot Oct. 31.

What Hicks found, however, was that he was not registered in Wake County and that he no longer was able to register to vote in his new hometown and cast a ballot the same day.

“It made me feel like I was being stifled,” he said in court July 13. “It made me feel like I was being told to shut up.”

Gwendolyn Farrington, a Durham resident who worked 72 hours a week at a Toyota factory in 2014, recounted her experience of trying to vote early outside her precinct one evening after work. Her shift ended at 6 p.m. and she tried to cast her ballot at an early voting site near the auto parts plant so she could pick up her two sons on her way home.

What she was told, however, was that she would either have to vote at her home precinct across town or cast a provisional ballot, which she later found was not counted in the 2014 election. That upset her, she said, recounting a common theme among African-American voters who like to cast ballots in person, in part because of a distrust in the electoral process that dates back more than five decades.

“I’m a registered voter,” Farrington said on the witness stand. “We have a right to vote just like anyone else. Everyone doesn’t have a lenient job or transportation. This is unfair.”

The trial, concerning the future of voting in North Carolina, has been steeped in history.

Attorneys representing legislators and Gov. Pat McCrory, who signed off on the changes, have argued repeatedly that the 2013 changes apply to all equally and do not discriminate, as challengers contend.

The challengers, however, have argued that voting data cannot be viewed in a vacuum in North Carolina or other Southern states, which, until 2013, were subject to more federal scrutiny when proposing to change election laws because of a discriminatory past.

In 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act, landmark legislation intended to protect hard-fought rights to participate in the electoral process, 46.8 percent of black North Carolinians were registered to vote, compared with 96.8 percent of whites.

The gap narrowed over the ensuing decades but remained significant. Then, between 2000 and 2012 – after the adoption of key voting reforms such as early voting, same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting – black turnout increased by 65 percent. In 2008 and 2012, two key presidential election years, African-Americans registered and voted at a higher rate than whites for the first time in state history.

In a telephone conference last week, attorneys for the challengers recounted much of their case.

They pointed out that legislators who fashioned the election law changes had claimed “executive privilege” and not shared email or other correspondence about the making of the overhaul and reasons behind it.

The provision of the law that set up a voter ID requirement for the 2016 elections has been challenged, too, but because of unexpected amendments to the rule earlier this summer, that part of the lawsuit will be argued later this year.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1