The battle over sweeping election law changes adopted in North Carolina in 2013 opened on two fronts yesterday.
In a packed courtroom inside the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem, attorneys for both the challengers and the state laid out the case they planned to present to U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder over the next several weeks.
State lawmakers knew exactly what they were doing when they stripped away same day registration, cut early voting days and eliminated the counting of out-of-precinct provisional ballots — provisions used widely by minority voters — Penda D. Hair, an attorney for the North Carolina NAACP, said in her opening statement.
“They were voter suppressors in search of a pretext,” she told the judge.
The state has argued throughout the case that the 2013 changes were neutral on their face, burdening all voters – not just African-American or Latino voters – and that the state’s election laws now resembled those in other states, where same day registration and early voting don’t exist.
But Hair dismissed that argument, saying that other states do not have the same racially-charged history of voter suppression as does North Carolina.
“Poll taxes were neutral on their face,” Hair said. “Literacy tests were neutral on their face. The law teaches it is the impact that matters – an impact that is linked to social and historical conditions – not whether a law explicitly says African Americans or Latinos are not allowed to vote.”
Outside, the trial over the voting changes in the court of public opinion also waged on.
Speakers from the state NAACP held an early morning press conference while their supporters and others from voting rights advocacy groups chanted what’s become the mantra for the Moral Monday movement: “Forward together! Not one step back.”
In the opposite corner behind a podium bearing the NCGOP logo, state Republican Party spokesman Ricky Diaz told the media that the election law changes were simply common sense provisions meant to ensure the integrity of the vote.
The parties have identified nearly 100 voters, experts and state officials as possible witnesses in the case, and once opening arguments ended, the challengers began calling them to the stand.
Durham resident Gwendolyn Farrington told the court 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.
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the state NAACP, also took the stand yesterday afternoon in advance of a planned Moral Monday voting rights march held at 5 p.m. in Winston-Salem.
“In North Carolina, a literacy test is still on the books,” Barber said. “The Voting Rights Act overruled it, but it remains there as a symbol.”
“In this country we should be doing everything humanly possible to ensure all people can vote,” he added.
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.