Civil rights activists rally in Winston-Salem.
Civil rights activists rallied in Winston-Salem last week.

by Jordan Green

Voters testify about difficulties casting ballots in recent elections while expert witnesses testify about the disparate impact of North Carolina’s restrictive new election law on African Americans and college students as a federal voting rights trial enters its second week.

When college student Louis Duke returned from break in late summer of 2012, he updated his voter registration from his parents’ address in Rockingham County to his residence at Campbell University. As president of the campus College Democrats, he plunged into an intense voter-registration drive as the presidential election approached.

As a matter of voter integrity, it would be hard to fault Duke’s diligence: He went better than writing the university’s address on his Harnett County voter registration form, instead providing his on-campus apartment. But when he attempted to cast a ballot during early voting, a volunteer poll worker told him he was not registered. The problem soon came to light: Across the state, local election boards use a mailing system to confirm that the new registrant is an actual voter. Duke hadn’t signed up for a campus PO box, describing it as an “unnecessary luxury.”

“This is not a generation that relies on mail,” he said. “We’re the Snapchat generation.” Duke eventually managed to straighten out his registration, and went back to the polling place and cast his ballot on the last day of early voting. If the bureaucratic snarl had taken place two years later, after most of the provisions of North Carolina’s new restrictive election law went into effect, Duke’s vote would not have been counted: The new law eliminated same-day registration, pushing the registration deadline back before the new, shortened 10-day early-voting period.

Duke was one of four lay witnesses who took the stand in court in Winston-Salem as a federal voting rights trial continued into its second week. Plaintiffs, including the North Carolina NAACP, the League of Women Voters and the US Justice Department, are seeking to invalidate several restrictive provisions of the election law and obtain a legal order requiring the state to get federal preclearance for election changes through a little-used tool under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

From go-getting young people to working-class African Americans, many of the witnesses who have taken the stand to testify for the plaintiffs share two salient characteristics: They’re part of voting blocs that have historically proven to be unfriendly to Republican candidates, and their residential instability and transience makes them easy marks for new provisions that increase restrictions on voting.

The court also heard testimony from Michael Owens, a 51-year-old Robeson County native who lost his job when the House of Raeford poultry plant closed in 2013. After exhausting his unemployment benefits, he found a new job as a detailer at K&K Auto Sales in Lumberton in February 2014, but his vehicle was later repossessed as a result of his financial difficulties. Although he lived in the town of Shannon, Owens stayed with his sister in Lumberton during the week so he could walk to work.

When the general election of 2014 came around, Owens received permission from his boss to borrow a truck and drive to a polling place in Lumberton on his hour-long lunch break. His boss refused to allow him to drive the truck to Shannon, where he was registered to vote, Owens testified, and in any case he wouldn’t have been able to make it back in an hour. He was unaware that the law had changed and out-of-precinct voting was no longer allowed.

“You understand that if you’re going to vote in the 2016 election, you’ll need to vote in your assigned precinct in Shannon?” Michael McKnight, a lawyer for the state of North Carolina, asked Owens in cross-examination.

The defense’s cross-examination of witnesses who encountered problems with voting in 2014 has consistently hit on some variation of that theme over the first six days of the trial: You know the rules of the road now. There’s nothing preventing you from voting in your assigned precinct. Essentially: You have the same opportunity to vote as everyone else.

Testimony by expert witnesses called by the plaintiffs has complemented the firsthand accounts of barriers at polling places given by ordinary voters.

Peter Levine, a professor at Tufts University, testified that North Carolina’s national ranking in turnout by voters ages 18 to 24 rose from 43rd in 2000 to eighth in 2012. But recently, youth voting strength has begun to wane, he said.

“The state in a sense is becoming slightly younger,” Levine testified, “and yet youth have become a smaller share of the voters.”

The elimination of same-day registration and the curtailment of early-voting days both work against turnout by young voters, Levine said. Youth turnout between the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014 remained essentially unchanged after the new election law went into effect, but given the “blockbuster” status of the 2014 election with unprecedented campaign spending and control of the US Senate hanging in the balance, he testified that he would have expected a significant increase.

Experts called by the plaintiffs have also testified that voting strength among blacks and Latinos increased over the course of the last decade as the General Assembly enacted reforms to expand access to the ballot box, while every single provision of the new election law passed since the Republicans took control of the legislature cuts against participation by those segments of the electorate.

The plaintiffs’ expert witnesses have supported their contention that the legislative intent of the new election was racially motivated. On Monday, Steven S. Lawson, professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University, cited a June 17, 2013 email from state Sen. Thom Goolsby. The state Senate would “take a fresh look” at the then-pending election bill after the US Supreme Court rendered its decision in Shelby County v. Holder, Goolsby said in the email, which was written 10 days before the ruling. The Supreme Court decision ultimately lifted federal pre-clearance requirements on several states, including North Carolina, that had to that point been covered by the Voting Rights Act.

“Clearly the outcome of Shelby is on the mind,” Lawson testified, adding that if the case resolved favorably, lawmakers “were prepared to go full speed ahead” with the full slate of restrictive provisions that were ultimately added.

Lawyers for the state have argued in the defense’s trial brief that nothing in the new law “erects an actual barrier to voting.” Challenged provisions such as the elimination of same-day registration and out-of-precinct provisional voting and shortening early voting days simply repeal or scale back “conveniences,” the defense argues.

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