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North Carolina's voter ID law on trial

A 94-year old African-American woman testified that she had to take 10 separate trips to state offices to get an ID that complies with North Carolina's law.
A worker carries signs about a voter ID law that went into effect in 2016 at the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections warehouse in Charlotte, N.C., Nov. 3, 2014. (Photo by Chris Keane/Reuters/Corbis)
A worker carries signs about a voter ID law that went into effect in 2016 at the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections warehouse in Charlotte, N.C., Nov. 3, 2014.

Does North Carolina’s voter ID law illegally discriminate against African-Americans and Latinos? That question is at the center of a trial over the law held this week in a federal courtroom in Winston-Salem.

If the law is upheld, it could make voting harder this fall in the Tar Heel State, which figures to be pivotal in the presidential race. And it could give a green light to other states considering similarly restrictive voting laws.

During the first two days of the trial Monday and Tuesday, the law’s challengers aimed to show that racial minorities are more likely than whites to lack acceptable ID; that there’s no significant voter fraud of the kind that could stopped by the ID requirement; and that the state hasn’t done enough to educate voters about the law.

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Rosanell Eaton, a 94-year old African-American woman who was made to recite the preamble to the U.S. Constitution to vote under Jim Crow, testified via video Monday that, because her name was spelled differently on different documents, she had to take 10 separate trips to various state offices in order to get an ID that complies with the law. Sylvia Kent described a similarly frustrating process in trying to get IDs for her two elderly disabled sisters.

Barry Burden, an expert on election administration at the University of Wisconsin, testified — in line with plenty of other research — that the ID requirement places a greater burden on blacks and Latinos than on whites, thanks in part to the state’s history of racial bias. And he questioned the rationale offered for the law by its supporters — the need to stop voter fraud. Burden said fraud is much more common among those who cast absentee ballots than those who vote in person,  yet the law doesn’t require ID for absentee ballots.

Six weeks after the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act (VRA), North Carolina Republicans passed a sweeping voting law that included not only an ID requirement but also cuts to early voting, the elimination of same-day voter registration, and several other measures that make it harder to cast a ballot. Speaking to MSNBC Tuesday, Donita Judge, a lawyer with the Advancement Project, one of the civil rights groups challenging the law, called it "an omnibus monster voter suppression bill."

The U.S. Justice Department and voting rights groups quickly challenged the law, claiming it violates a plank of the VRA that remains in tact, which bars racial discrimination in voting.

The law's ID provision only went into effect this year. But the rest was in force for the 2014 midterms, when North Carolina hosted a tight Senate race. One study estimated that it kept more than 30,000 would-be voters from the polls.

Not long before the trial over the law was set to begin last July, lawmakers modified the ID requirement, allowing people to cast a provisional ballot if they attested that they had a “reasonable impediment” to getting an ID. The ballot will count if the impediment is upheld. As a result of that change, the ID provision was omitted from last year’s trial, and is being considered now for the first time.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder, a George W. Bush appointee, hasn’t yet ruled on the law’s other provisions, which were the subject of the last trial. But in what could be a bad sign for the law’s challengers, Schroeder this month denied their request to issue an immediate injunction against the ID requirement, saying that the challengers hadn’t shown they’re likely to succeed on the merits at trial.   

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Lawyers for the state have said that the modified ID law is now little different from South Carolina’s ID law, which was upheld by a court in 2012.

The challengers note in response that the South Carolina law is less restrictive in the types of ID it allows. More importantly, they say, the state hasn’t done enough to let voters know about the “reasonable impediment” addition, instead focusing their messages on the ID requirement itself. That could lead many voters not to show up on Election Day out of a mistaken belief that they won’t be able to vote without ID.

“We’re certainly concerned about the implementation of the law, and the fact that the state board has chosen not to educate [people] on this provision," said Judge, the Advancement Project lawyer.

Much could also depend on how well poll workers are trained about the "reasonable impediment" provision, and whether they actively tell voters about it rather than sending them away.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court may have the last word. It may well take up either North Carolina’s law or Texas’s voter ID law, which is currently before an appeals court, likely before the November election. A broad ruling in either case would go a long way to resolving whether restrictive voting laws of the kind passed in North Carolina will continue to proliferate.