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NC Voting Trial: Closing Arguments And Questions From Federal Judge

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The fate of North Carolina's voting overhaul is now in the hands of a federal judge, after a three-week trial wrapped up Friday in Winston-Salem. The overhaul cut the early voting period by a week, eliminated same-day registration, and prohibited the counting of out-of-precinct ballots. Federal judge Thomas Schroeder had a variety of questions for those suing and defending North Carolina. WFAE's Michael Tomsic was in the courtroom and joined Jennifer Montague to discuss closing arguments.

What were the judge's big questions?

Let's start with what he asked the plaintiffs, including the U.S. Justice Department and the North Carolina NAACP. Judge Schroeder said there is no doubt the overhaul took away provisions that African-Americans disproportionately used. But, he asked, is there still equal opportunity to vote?

Dan Donovan representing the North Carolina NAACP said no. He said because of how heavily African-Americans relied on those provisions, they face a greater burden in complying with the new law.

What was the state's response to that?

Its lawyers pointed out the African-American turnout rate increased slightly in 2014, which was the first election after the overhaul.

An attorney representing the state, Thomas Farr, said he's not aware of any case where lawmakers made a change, African-American turnout increased, and then a court ruled that change violated the Voting Rights Act.

But there has also been testimony that African-Americans were disenfranchised in 2014. What did the judge say about that?

Judge Schroeder pointed out some of the testimony has been from voters who just didn't know the rules. He asked an attorney for the Justice Department, Burt Russ, if it's a burden if people just forget or weren't motivated.

Russ said it's wrong to blame the voters for the state taking away a failsafe, like same-day registration. He pointed out more than a dozen witnesses testified about how they were disenfranchised. And he said the racial disparity in who fell victim is important.

Nationwide, there are many states that don't offer same-day registration or count out-of-precinct ballots. What did the judge ask about setting a precedent?

He asked a lot about that, and here's how the NAACP lawyer addressed it:

Donovan said the key is that all these provisions contributed to a surge in African-American turnout and registrations, and then lawmakers curtailed or eliminated all of it, all at once.

Donovan argued that would be the precedent here. It's not simply whether a state has this stuff. It's whether lawmakers suddenly strip away a package of things that African-American voters disproportionately rely on.

The state's lawyers disagreed, and they say this could have huge implications for the majority of states.

What were some of the judge's questions for the state?

Judge Schroeder said the provisions were extremely popular and made it easier to vote. He said government should be in the business of making it easier to vote, so he asked, why are the changes justified?

Farr, with the state, gave a couple reasons that have been disputed, like cost for counties and consistency across early voting sites. Fraud has also come up, although the evidence shows there's little if any of that.

But Farr also pointed out that Congress does not require states to offer any of these provisions.

And how do politics fit into all this?

In the 2000s when Democrats controlled the legislature, they enacted the things that made it easier to vote. Then when Republicans took over, they passed the overhaul. That's another way the state's attorneys have defended the law - it's just new leaders with a different view of election policies.

Russ, the Justice Department lawyer, said the Supreme Court has talked about the troubling mix of race and politics in some cases, since African-Americans tend to vote Democratic.

Russ said as their turnout was increasing in North Carolina, that made them a growing threat to Republicans. The Justice Department argues when you combine that with the timing of the changes - lawmakers rammed them through after a key part of the Voting Rights Act was struck down - it shows discriminatory intent. 

When will Judge Schroeder rule?

He said he'll take at least a few weeks.