Opponents try to block restrictive voting law during 2014 election

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Photo by Carissa Joines

By Jordan Green

Lawyers for the US government and other plaintiffs previewed their arguments against a new restrictive voting law before this year’s mid-term election before a federal judge in Winston-Salem on Monday.

Plaintiffs, which include the US government, the state NAACP and other organizations, along with several individuals, are seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent implementation of the state’s new voting law during the November elections before the case goes to trial next year. Provisions of the law that the opponents want to block include elimination of same-day registration and voting, elimination of out-of-precinct provisional voting, elimination of pre-registration of voters before their 18th birthday, elimination of Sunday voting and reduction of early-voting. The hearing is expected to continue through the week.

Allison Riggs, a lawyer representing the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and other plaintiffs outlined a series of reforms before Judge Thomas Schroeder beginning in 2000 that lowered barriers to voting in North Carolina that she said resulted in the state rising from 48th in voter turnout in 1988 to 11th in 2012.

“They have witnessed firsthand the benefits that have flowed from leveling the playing field,” Riggs said of witnesses she expects to call later in the week. “The challenged provisions acting with each other and other parts of the bill will interact with historical conditions to make it harder for African Americans to vote.”

Riggs said she also expects to call Gary Bartlett and George Gilbert, respectively the former executive directors of the state Board of Elections and the Guilford County Board of Elections to testify about the effect of reforms.

“African Americans in this state have consistently availed themselves of early voting, same-day registration and voting and out-of-precinct provisional voting,” Riggs said. “These facts are uncontested in this court.”

Penda Hair, a lawyer for the NAACP, argued that lawmakers knew when they passed the omnibus voting bill in 2013 that the various reforms had increased African-Americans’ electoral participation.

“The North Carolina General Assembly saw an increase in African-American voting after these reforms were enacted,” Hair said. “They knew that restricting early voting would disproportionately impact African-American voters.”

She added that the plaintiffs would prove a likelihood of success in establishing an intent to discriminate on the part of the state by showing that lawmakers waited until after the US Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to pass the legislation on the basis that it wouldn’t have passed preclearance.

Butch Bowers, the lawyer for Gov. Pat McCrory, told the judge that the new election law is not discriminatory.

“On the part of Gov. McCrory and certainly the legislature, there is no intent to discriminate,” he said. “There is no discriminatory effect. There is no evidence of discrimination.

“This is common-sense, reasonable reform which really puts North Carolina in the mainstream of other states,” Bowers added. “37 other states don’t have same-day registration. The reduction in early voting to 10 days puts North Carolina in the middle.”

North Carolina’s new voting law is widely considered to be among the most restrictive in the nation.

Also arguing for the defense, Alexander Peters with the state Attorney General’s office said one argument — that the restrictive voting law discourages participation — falls apart when one considers that turnout increased in the May primary, after the law went into effect at the beginning of the year. And if the presidential election is where the legislation is likely to have the most impact, he argued, the court can wait until the case goes to trial in 2015.

“Their case boils down to, they like [the provisions], and they’re unhappy that they were taken away,” Peters said.

Peters also argued that the purpose of a preliminary injunction is to preserve the status quo to prevent irreparable harm, and that the law is now the status quo because it has already been enacted. To change in midstream would impose a burden on local election officials who are scheduling early voting and preparing forms, he said.

The Rev. William Barber II, the president of the state NAACP, dismissed the state’s arguments in remarks outside the courtroom.

“What they did was disrupt the status quo,” he said. “North Carolinians of all races, parties and sexual orientations have benefited from opening up access to voting. The demographics of our electorate were changing. Now they’re arguing that these law should stay the same even if they’re unconstitutional.

“This is not about voter integrity or voter ID,” he continued. “It is about a group of lawmakers, starting with [House Speaker] Thom Tillis who identified voters they thought would not support their extremist positions and targeting them for disenfranchisement.”

Giving a flavor of the testimony that can be expected through the rest of the week, attorneys for the plaintiffs called Guilford County Commissioner Carolyn Coleman and Melvin Montford, an officer with the A. Philip Randolph Institute to the witness stand.

Coleman described her experience registering voters as a field organizer for the NAACP in Alabama and Mississippi in the 1960s and later as executive director of the North Carolina NAACP beginning in 1979. As an example of the violent reaction to efforts to register black voters, Coleman said she was working with Wharlest Jackson, a member of the Natchez, Miss. NAACP when he was killed in a car bombing. Later, she marched three rows behind the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers shortly before the civil-rights leader was assassinated.

Later, as executive director of the North Carolina NAACP, Coleman said she was involved in protesting school segregation and police brutality and efforts to register voters, particularly in the eastern part of the state.

“Many of them were not registered to vote,” she recalled. “They were afraid to register to vote. They did not think it would make a difference. They didn’t see any elected officials who were black.”

In 2000, when the state of North Carolina enacted early voting, Coleman said she was “ecstatic.”

She enumerated how several provisions eliminated or restricted under the new voting law increased voter turnout among African Americans.

“It gives people an opportunity to vote,” she said. “There are people who work two jobs, three jobs, and this gives them an opportunity to vote. There are people who have childcare problems and have to take care of elderly parents. This gives them an opportunity to vote. Sunday voting is a day that we have been able to get more people to vote because we worked with the churches and after the service we transported people to the polls in vans or members’ cars. We had hundreds of people voting.”

Coleman said when she heard about the bill she was devastated.

“Everything I had worked for the past 50 years of my life was almost being lost,” she said.