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Federal court looks at N.C. voting law

“This is our Selma,” the president of the North Carolina NAACP said, rallying activists and denouncing Republican efforts to suppress the vote 50 years after the brutal, bloody marches for voting rights in the South.

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, the leader of the state NAACP, joined other civil rights activists in mid-July in a massive march in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. They were marking the start of a federal trial over a state law restricting when and how people can vote. The outcome of the trial could have sweeping implications for voting rights nationwide.

“North Carolina was the first state to pass a restrictive voting law after the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act of 2013, and it is the worst voter suppression law the country has seen since 1965,” Barber said. “The people of North Carolina are standing up — in the courts and on the streets — because we refuse to accept the revival of Jim Crow tactics used to block access to the ballot for African-American and Latino voters.”

When first introduced in 2013, the North Carolina measure consisted of 12 pages and called for requiring voters to present photo IDs. That measure, inspired by a model bill drafted by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council — which is heavily influenced by the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch — proved objectionable to progressives.

But it got much worse.

After the Supreme Court ruling in the Shelby County v. Holder voting rights case, lawmakers expanded the bill to 40 pages. The measure — H.B. 589, which passed along party lines — shortens the early voting period by a week, eliminates same-day registration, prohibits counting provisional ballots cast out of precinct, expands the ability to challenge voters, eliminates a pre-registration program for teenagers and requires photo IDs.

Post-Shelby, other state legislatures reduced access to the polls and created new restrictions on voting. But in North Carolina, lawmakers rolled all the right-wing voting restrictions advocated by ALEC into an omnibus measure that passed swiftly, with minimal public comment, just before the end of the 2013 legislative session. At the time, critics compared Republicans’ drive in North Carolina to the suppression strategy carried out by Republicans in Wisconsin. Since 2011, Wisconsin has twice reduced in-person early voting, introduced restrictions on voter registration, changed residency requirements, eliminated straight-ticket voting, limited opportunity to obtain an absentee ballot by fax or email and imposed a voter ID requirement.

In the North Carolina House, every Democrat asked to speak against the bill.

“The whole Democratic caucus, after the bill passed, stood up and bowed their heads in a moment of silence,” said state Rep. Henry “Mickey” Michaux, who testified at the trial.

As in Wisconsin, the ACLU and the League of Women Voters organizations in North Carolina are leading the challenge to the voter suppression law, along with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

They maintain the law violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution by discriminating against voters of color.

Throughout the trial, witnesses repeatedly testified that lawmakers’ intent with H.B. 589 is to make it more difficult for black and Latino voters to register and cast ballots by eliminating opportunities and access used at disproportionately higher rates by voters of color.

Other challenges to other voter suppression laws have argued that lawmakers’ intent was to make it more difficult for people who traditionally vote Democratic to cast ballots. In North Carolina, the focus is on race and racism, not partisanship.

In 2012, about 900,000 North Carolina voters cast ballots in the seven days of early voting eliminated a year later by the Legislature. About 70 percent of those voters were African-American. Lawmakers knew that percentage before changing the law. They also knew that an estimated 200,000 votes were lost in Florida in 2012 after cuts to early voting.

In the 2012 and 2008 elections, more than 90,000 North Carolina voters used same-day registration. African-Americans relied on same-day registration at twice the rate of white voters — another fact known to lawmakers before they eliminated same-day registration.

Before 2013, if a voter appeared at the wrong precinct, North Carolina used to count the ballot for all offices in which the person would be eligible to vote — including statewide offices and for president. Now ballots cast at the wrong precinct are discarded.

UW-Madison professor Barry Burden, the director of the Elections Research Center, told the court about the “calculus of voting,” a model used to determine the financial, educational and psychological costs of voting. “In general, disruptions to voting habits raise costs and deter participation,” he said. “What may appear to be equal costs imposed by a restriction on voting practices are, in fact, more acute for black and Latino voters. These groups are doubly burdened because they have fewer resources needed to overcome those costs and vote.”

North Carolina, in its defense, has maintained that the changes in H.B. 589 are “neutral on their face” — the same claim made for poll taxes and literacy tests.

“The law teaches that it is the impact that matters … not whether a law explicitly says African-Americans or Latinos are not allowed to vote,” said Penda D. Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group.

The state also has said H.B. 589 was needed to curb voter fraud, but the state elections board said from 2000 to 2014 there were two claims of voter impersonation out of 35 million votes.

“Any fair reading of the sequence of events before the bill’s passage leads to the conclusion that (the legislators) were voter suppressors in search of a pretext,” Hair said of the North Carolina process. “There was no legitimate problem they were trying to solve.”

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