Voting rights trial continues in Winston-Salem

Voter IDAttorneys and parties in the voting rights trial return to federal court in Winston-Salem this morning to continue presenting testimony and other evidence to U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder.

During week one of what’s expected to be a multi-week trial, attorneys for the parties challenging the sweeping voting restrictions adopted in 2013 unfolded their case with personal stories from voters who struggled to vote as a result, along with testimony from experts about the intent and the impact of the election law changes.

Attorneys for the state in turn sought to poke holes in that testimony, questioning the efforts voters took to cast their ballots and probing the analyses undertaken by the academics.

Here’s a quick look at some of what Judge Schroeder heard last week.

A number of voters testified about difficulties they had in casting a ballot that counted.

Durham resident Gwendolyn Farrington testified on Monday that she tried to vote near her 6 a.m.-to-6 p.m. job, since she couldn’t get to her own precinct, but was told that she had to cast a provisional ballot — which she later learned would not be counted. The 2013 voting changes prohibited the counting of provisional ballots cast in the right county but the wrong precinct.

Terrilyn Cunningham, a minister in Concord, had a similar experience on election day. When she went to vote early before work, she learned that she was in the wrong precinct, but was told she could cast a provisional ballot. Like Farrington, she later learned that her vote wouldn’t count. 

The elimination of same-day registration kept others from voting at all, as did the shortening of the early voting period.

William Kittrell of Greensboro told the court on Tuesday that he went to vote during the early voting period in October 2014 only to learn that his voter registration was not in the system. He had previously lived in Henderson and thought that if he was registered in North Carolina, he could vote anywhere in the state. Under the old law, he could have registered and voted that same day.

Rev. Gregory Moss, pastor at St. Paul Baptist Church in Charlotte, said the new law undercut efforts he and other ministers had made to improve voting participation by their predominantly black congregation members, including “Souls to the Polls” early voting on Sundays — which was eliminated under the 2013 laws.

Moss added that many in his church community are hourly-wage workers who depend upon public transportation and can’t easily take time off to vote.

Academics also took the stand to elaborate on lawmakers’ intent when passing the election changes and the impact those changes had on minority voters. 

J. Morgan Kousser, a professor of history and social science at the California Institute of Technology, testified that he thought Republican state legislators had racially discriminatory intent in passing the election law.

Allan J. Lichtman, a statistician and American University professor of political history, echoed that sentiment and talked about events leading up to the law’s passage, which he said demonstrate that lawmakers knew and understood its discriminatory impact.

As originally filed, the law focused only on voter ID. Once the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the pre-clearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act, though, lawmakers quickly pushed through a massively expanded bill with the additional restrictions being challenged in the case.

“Now we can go with the full bill,” Sen. Tom Apodaca said at the time.

“Prior to the passage of HB 589, there was a fundamental shift in voting strength in North Carolina with respect to the percentages of registered African-American and Latino voters versus whites,” Lichtman said. “In response, HB 589 was knowingly and deliberately adopted to place a disproportionate burden on African-American and Latino voters in North Carolina in respect to registration and voting.”

Charles Stewart, a professor of political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discussed his conclusion that the new law disproportionately impacts black voters because those voters used early voting, out-of-precinct voting and same-day voter registration at much higher rates than whites.

Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the Elections Research Center, reached a similar conclusion.

“In general, disruptions to voting habits raise costs and deter participation,” Burden 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 of the resources needed to overcome those costs and vote.”

Young voters also suffer under the new law, D. Sunshine Hillygus, a professor of political science at Duke University, told the court — referring to the law’s elimination of the preregistration of 16- and 17-year old voters.

Registration is the largest obstacle to getting them to vote, Hillygus said, and preregistration helped alleviate that problem. 

Nearly 150,000 young people preregistered here in 2012, she added, and a disproportionate number of them were black.

Trial will continue day-to-day at the federal courthouse at 251 N. Main Street, Winston-Salem, and is expected to last at least two weeks. Read here for more on what to expect during the proceedings. 

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