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In Voter ID Trial, Opening Arguments On Intent, Personal Burdens And Fraud

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North Carolina’s sweeping election overhaul is back in a federal court in Winston-Salem this week. A judge there heard arguments this summer over changes to early voting, same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting. Now, the focus is photo ID. WFAE’s Michael Tomsic has been covering the lawsuits and joined Marshall Terry to break down the latest. 

What did the U.S. Justice Department and others suing North Carolina say in their opening arguments yesterday?

The Justice Department, the North Carolina NAACP and others argue the voter ID requirement was passed with discriminatory intent. Republican lawmakers knew that there would be at least a few hundred thousand people affected and that they’d be disproportionately African-American, based on state data.

The Justice Department had its own expert crunch the numbers for North Carolina, and he found African-Americans are twice as likely as whites not to have ID.

The state’s attorneys counter that the true intent was about preventing voter fraud. They also point out lawmakers had polls showing the majority of their constituents wanted voter ID.

The idea of fraud has come up a lot in these lawsuits. What evidence have the two sides submitted?

University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Barry Burden testified yesterday it’s a non-issue, as have most experts in these lawsuits the past year and a half.

But an attorney representing North Carolina, Tom Farr, pushed Burden on that: how would a poll worker know if a voter is who he says he is? Farr contended that a poll worker is basically taking him at his word if there’s no ID.

And that’s essentially how the fraud debate has gone. Those suing say there’s no evidence, while the state says that doesn’t mean there’s not a real risk.

There were also witnesses who gave personal testimony about how the change impacts them or their families. What were some examples?

Rosanell Eaton is an African-American woman in her 90s from Lewisburg. She testified that she made 10 trips total to DMV and social security offices to get issues with her name straightened out. State attorneys point out she did eventually get a license, and the whole process took less than a month.

Alonzo Phillips is an African-American from Halifax County. He moved there to take care of his mother, and the two of them get by on her social security benefits and his odd jobs. He testified that he has not been able to get an ID because his name is missing a letter on his birth certificate and that doesn’t match with his social security card.

How did the state counter with him?

State attorneys ask Phillips about calling the board of elections for help, and he says he could do that. Also, state lawmakers watered down the law last summer, creating a variety of acceptable excuses not to have an ID. They include a lack of transportation or the necessary documents to get an ID, so that appears to cover Phillips.

That's a key point for the state: its attorneys contend that Justice Department and others suing can’t point to a single specific person who won’t be able to vote because of the ID provisions.

How much is that due to the way lawmakers just recently watered down the bill?

A good deal. In fact, the attorneys suing don’t think it’s a coincidence that lawmakers quietly made that change right before the trial on this stuff was supposed to begin this summer. Keep in mind the original law had passed two years before. And attorneys found some emails from lawmakers suggesting the last second change was really about winning the court fight.

That fight is not limited to ID. The trial over the summer ended up focusing on other parts of the overhaul, including cuts to early voting. Attorneys got more time to analyze the watered down ID requirement, and now that part of the case is playing out. 

How long will this round of arguments last?

Attorneys think the voter ID trial will wrap up late this week or early next. At that point, federal judge Thomas Schroeder will have heard exhaustive arguments on all the challenged parts of the overhaul. He’s said he’ll aim to rule in time for the appeals process to play out before the general election.

Does that mean it may not be settled before the March 15 primary?

That’s possible. The timing is really just up to the judge.  

Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.