Politics

Trial Begins For ‘The Worst Voter Suppression Law We’ve Seen Since The 1960s’

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

North Carolinians gather outside the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem as the trial over the state's voting laws begins.

WINSTON-SALEM, NC — On the eve of one of the biggest voting rights trial of the year, more than one thousand people of all ages packed into the long, velvet-lined pews of Winston-Salem’s Union Baptist Church, clasping hands and swaying back and forth as a full gospel choir belted out, “This is war!”

The battle lines were clearly drawn Sunday night, just hours before the Middle District federal court of North Carolina heard NAACP vs. McCrory — a lawsuit challenging the state’s sweeping law restricting when, how, and where voters can cast their ballots as unconstitutionally discriminatory against voters of color. The 2013 law eliminated same-day voter registration, cut a full week of early voting, barred voters from casting a ballot outside their home precinct, ended straight-ticket voting, and scrapped a program to pre-register high school students who would turn 18 by Election Day. It also included the nation’s strictest voter ID requirement, which the state somewhat loosened a few weeks before the trial began, to allow alternate forms of ID.

“This was a racist attack on our sacred right to vote, a right that was won with blood and the lives and souls of martyrs throughout the south,” North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William Barber boomed out from the pulpit. “50 years after Bloody Sunday, we find ourselves having to have our own Selma now, because of the worst voter suppression law we’ve seen since the 1960s. I say we’re at war. But the weapons of our warfare are not molotov cocktails, or guns or hatred. The weapons of our warfare are love and truth and righteousness and a concern for justice.”

North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William Barber preaches at Union Baptist Church the night before the trial.

North Carolina NAACP President Reverend William Barber preaches at Union Baptist Church the night before the trial.

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

Over a two-week trial beginning Monday, July 13, the NAACP, League of Women Voters, and a group of North Carolina students will argue that the state’s law violates what remains of the Voting Rights Act, as well as the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, which guarantee equal protection under law, and an unabridged right to vote. Though it’s a bigger legal challenge, they will also attempt to prove state legislators knew the law would keep voters of color from casting ballots, and passed it with that intention.

To make that argument, those challenging North Carolina’s law point to the timing of when it was introduced and passed: as soon as the Supreme Court struck down key protections in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Before that 2013 ruling, North Carolina and other states with a history of racial voter support had to clear any changes to their voting laws with the federal Justice Department. Free from that requirement, the Republican-controlled legislature pushed the bill through, and all provisions except the voter ID requirement went into effect for the 2014 midterm election.

At the trial, attorneys will present reams of evidence that thousands of people were disenfranchised or faced unreasonable burdens in that election because of the new laws. One of them was 94-year-old native North Carolinian Rosanell Eaton, who could not get a government issued voter ID. Her daughter, Armenta Eaton, told reporters that they made nine trips to the DMV, totaling more than 250 miles of driving, to acquire the proper papers.

“After seven decades of being able to vote in every county and state election, her ability is threatened now by this law,” she said. “My mother was not born in a hospital, but by a midwife at her home. All her life she thought her name was one word, but the government document had it as two words. They also had a different date of birth, so they kept rejecting her for a state ID because of these discrepancies. Both she and I believe she should not have to have gone through these difficult times to exercise her right to vote as a citizen of these United States.”

The elder Eaton grew up attending segregated schools and drinking from water fountains labeled “colored.” When she first registered to vote in the 1940s, she was forced to recite the preamble to the Constitution, a requirement that is now illegal. When she joined the NAACP and helped other African Americans register to vote, crosses were burned on her lawn and bullets fired at her home.

“Little did she know her journey would be so difficult to vote in future elections,” her daughter said.

Lawyers for North Carolina counter that the intention of the law was combating voter fraud, not voters of color.

In his legal brief, the state’s attorney general Roy Cooper accused the plaintiffs of asking for “the equivalent of election law affirmative action” and “practices that are favored by political organizations dedicated to maximizing Democratic turnout.” The brief also dismissed the data that African Americans are more likely to vote early, register on Election Day and lack a photo ID as “unfounded academic speculation.” The state legislators who voted for law have defended it as a protection against “massive voter fraud.”

“Their claim of fraud is fraudulent. It’s a lie,” said Barber, the lead plaintiff in the case. “As soon as a black president won in the South, in North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida, all of a sudden they cried fraud. Even the claim of fraud is racist.”

Hundreds pray for victory in the trial against North Carolina's voting law.

Hundreds pray for victory in the trial against North Carolina’s voting law.

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

With a restoration of the Voting Rights Act that would restore pre-clearance requirements for North Carolina stymied in Congress, the plaintiffs are also asking the federal judge to “bail-in” North Carolina so that any future changes the state tries to make to its voting laws must be approved by the Department of Justice. No matter the outcome of the trial, it will set a precedent with national implications.

“This case will determine how cases are dealt with all over this country. If we win, we will stop legislators across the U.S. from rolling back voting rights. They will understand they cannot do this,” predicted Barber. “This case will also show Congress they must fix Section 4 and reinstate Section 5 [of the Voting Rights Act] so that states like North Carolina are covered.”

To draw attention to the case, thousands will march through Winston-Salem under the banner of the state’s Moral Mondays Movement, calling on the judge and the state government to “do the right thing” and restore the lost provisions that made it easier to vote.

Isaac Howard, the head of the NAACP of Winston-Salem, stepped up to the pulpit Sunday night wearing head-to-toe camouflage. “I heard there was a war going on,” he said, peering out over the sea of people who had come from across the country. “Thank you for sending reinforcements.”