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Voting Law Trial Gets Underway Inside, Outside Courthouse

Michael Tomsic

The federal trial over North Carolina’s sweeping election overhaul began Monday in Winston-Salem with pointed accusations in court and a massive march right outside it. The U.S. Justice Department, the North Carolina NAACP and others are suing the state. They accuse Republican lawmakers of taking aim at several voting methods that minorities disproportionately relied on.

Kandice Phelps and about 70 other young people rode buses from Salisbury to the march. Phelps is a 17-year-old African-American who plans to be the first from her family to go to college. 

“People fought for me to be able to be here education-wise and voting-wise, so I want to be able to fight for my future kids to be able to do the same.”

She and the other marchers filled two to three blocks of downtown Winston-Salem, chanting “What do you want? Voting rights! What do you want? Voting rights!”

They’re angry about the overhaul to North Carolina election law that lawmakers passed two years ago. Marching past the courthouse where a federal judge is hearing arguments over it, they carried signs that read “Let the people vote,”  and “Forward together.”

Bibi Coyne carried a sign that said “Winston-Selma.”

“I can’t believe that so many years after Selma that we are still fighting for voting rights,” she said.

In the courtroom, a lawyer representing the North Carolina NAACP, Penda Hair, said, “this is our Selma” in her opening statement. Hair restated some of her argument to the marchers.

“I started off by saying that the NAAACP and the other plaintiffs in our group understand that this is a pivotal moment in North Carolina and United States history,” she said.

But comparing the election law to what happened on the march from Selma, Ala., goes too far, says Thomas Farr, an attorney representing the state.

The trial focuses on portions of the law that cut the early voting period by a week, eliminated same-day registration, and ended the counting of ballots cast in the wrong precinct.

In Farr’s opening statement, he pointed out those changes put North Carolina’s election regulations in line with the majority of states. If it’s unconstitutional not to count out-of-precinct ballots here, he says it has to be in the rest of the country too.

U.S. Justice Department lawyer Catherine Meza says the difference here is that African-Americans have come to rely on those measures. They cast out-of-precinct ballots and vote early at a far higher rate than white voters. Meza says those facts, interacting with the state’s history of racial discrimination, caused the Justice Department to step in.

The attorney in the case representing Governor Pat McCrory, Butch Bowers, says no one disputes North Carolina’s history of discrimination. But Bowers says that’s not on trial. The law that is was written in a way that’s neutral on race.  

Well, so were poll taxes and literacy tests, argued Penda Hair for the NAACP. She and the other plaintiffs called witnesses to try to show the effect of the law is not neutral.

Several African-Americans testified they couldn’t vote in 2014 for a variety of reasons, including bureaucratic mix-ups and a lack of information. They said same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting used to provide a failsafe for when those things happen.

The attorneys say there will be many more stories like that as the trial continues over the next few weeks. Whether Judge Thomas Schroeder views them as disenfranchisement or simply people not following the rules will be key to his eventual decision.