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NC Voting Trial Day Two: NC's History Of Racism, Debate Over Legislative Intent

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On day two, the trial over North Carolina's election overhaul touched on the state's long history of racial discrimination and its brief debate over sweeping voting changes. The U.S. Justice Department, the League of Women Voters and others suing North Carolina used a mix of personal stories and expert testimony in Winston-Salem on Tuesday.

One of the major accusations is that state lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minorities when they passed the changes two years ago. How did that argument play out in court yesterday?

The Republican lawmakers behind the overhaul are refusing to talk about it, so the lawyers are analyzing it in other ways. For example, the League of Women Voters called Morgan Kousser as an expert witness. He's a professor at the California Institute of Technology and has studied legislative intent extensively. The way he does this when you can't really go to what the lawmakers say is by looking, for example, at what was the baseline? What was the system like before the changes?

In the 2000s, African-American turnout started increasing by leaps and bounds after lawmakers enabled early voting, out-of-precinct voting and same-day registration. Those are the things that were then taken away. Kousser argued that's one sign of intent.

Another one is that the bill changed dramatically after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act. After that, it went from a roughly 14-page bill to a roughly 57-page bill, and the legislature basically rammed it through at the end of it session without any  hearings.

Kousser added all of that up to say he thought the legislature had discriminatory intent when it passed it.

How did attorneys for the state respond?

One point they raised was how much credit does the Obama campaign deserve for really big African-American turnout increases in 2008 and 2012? Also, could it just be partisan changes? Democrats were in control during the 2000s, and then Republicans took control and had a different view of election policies.

And the point that the state's attorneys really pressed Kousser on was could you find a single lawmaker, name a specific lawmaker, who showed discriminatory intent? Kousser said no. He looked at the legislature as a whole but said there was no smoking gun.

Attorneys have also brought up North Carolina's history of discrimination frequently during the first two days of the trial. How does that fit into these lawsuits?

It provides a lot of context. We heard testimony Tuesday about violent suppression of the African-American vote in the late 1800s. There's the Wilmington Race Riot in 1898, which was this really big moment in North Carolina politics where it switched from coalition governments that included African-Americans to really having African-American votes suppressed for a long time after.

Attorneys pointed out our state constitution still includes a literacy test, although obviously it's not in effect.

And expert witnesses linked past discrimination to current socioeconomic conditions. There was testimony about how there is still an imbalance in poverty, still an imbalance in education achievement. Basically, this all fits into why some African-Americans view the changes as an attack.

How are attorneys for the state dealing with that history?

The attorney for Governor Pat McCrory, Butch Bowers, said in his opening statement that we recognize North Carolina has this awful history. But that history is not on trial. What is on trial are these changes. The attorneys also pointed out that some of these socioeconomic disparities are getting better.

In addition, Hispanic kids are doing worse in school based on some of the expert testimony than African-Americans. The attorneys said one would argue there has been an official discriminatory policy against Hispanics to the level of African-Americans over the years.

And their clearest point is that there is no official discrimination anymore. The argument is how long of a shadow is still cast from what happened in the past, and how does that fit into the imbalances today.

Now there have also been personal stories of African-Americans who did not get to vote back in November's elections. What were some of those stories Tuesday?

There was a 20-year-old African-American from Greensboro who was still registered in the county he lived in before 2014. When he went to vote near his new place, he could not vote. If same-day registration were still an option, he would've been able to.

Also, an African-American mother of four from Cabarrus County remembered being able to vote anywhere in the county she lived in 2012 under the old laws. Now, she works several jobs and had very little time on election day, so she went to the polling place closest to work in 2014. That's not her assigned one, and since lawmakers took away out-of-precinct voting, her vote didn't count either.   

Are those examples of disenfranchisement?

That word is going to be really key. The plaintiffs are trying to say it is. The state's lawyers say these are just examples of people who didn't know the rules. Once they learned the rules, they are now registered in the right county. They now say they would go to right place in the next election.

The federal judge in this case, Thomas Schroeder, that's going to be a key question in deciding whether or not to throw these things out.

Wednesday is day three of the trial. How much longer will it go?

At least another two weeks. Judge Schroeder said it could stretch to four weeks.

As a quick reminder, voter ID is not part of this trial, right?

Correct. That is being sued, but state lawmakers watered it down so much last month that the attorneys asked the judge for more time to sort through that, and the judge granted them that time.