Voter ID trial gets underway in federal court this week

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Rosanell Eaton (second from left), a plaintiff in legal challenge to North Carolina’s voter ID requirement, leaves federal court in Winston-Salem on Monday.

by Jordan Green

A new provision requiring voters to present photo ID at the polls is being challenged in federal court in Winston-Salem this week.

North Carolina’s new voter ID provision goes on trial this week, with opponents and lawyers for the state making opening arguments in federal court in Winston-Salem on Monday.

The trial in Judge Thomas Schroeder’s courtroom marks a sequel to three weeks of hearings last July on the wide-ranging provisions in North Carolina’s restrictive voting law, which passed in 2013. Deliberations on the voter ID provisions, which go into effect during the upcoming March 15 primary, were set aside until now, at the request of the plaintiffs. Schroeder has yet to rule on the case, which is expected to have national ramifications, possibly setting the stage for an eventual showdown on voting rights in the Supreme Court.

“The state should be making it easier to engage in the fundamental right to vote, not harder,” said Michael Glick, a lawyer for the North Carolina NAACP, in his opening argument. “The photo ID requirement imposed by North Carolina law makes it more difficult for African Americans and Latinos to exercise that fundamental right, and it offers them less opportunity than whites to participate in the political process, and it does so without any valid countervailing state interest. For that reason, the photo ID requirement violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act as well as the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the US Constitution.”

The United States, as a co-plaintiff with the NAACP, is arguing that the voter ID provision was motivated at least in part by discriminatory intent — a legal bar set by the US Supreme Court in the 1977 case Village of Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp.

“Hundreds of thousands of voters lacked ID and a disproportionate number of them were African Americans when the General Assembly enacted the law,” said Catherine Meza, a lawyer for the United States. “They had clear evidence that African Americans disproportionately lacked photo ID, yet they proceeded to enact the law anyway.”

Thomas Farr, the lead attorney for the state of North Carolina, disputed the plaintiffs’ claims.

“The evidence doesn’t rise anywhere close to showing intentional discrimination,” he said, while expressing confidence that the plaintiffs won’t be able to prove that North Carolina’s election law discriminates on the basis of race.

Farr assailed the reliability of so-called no-match reports submitted by the plaintiffs that compare registered voters against the Division of Motor Vehicles’ list of people with state-issued photo IDs.

“It does not show that they did not have voter ID; it only shows that there were not able to be matched,” Farr said.

“We are talking about a very small group of people who may not have photo ID,” he continued. “They may not have a car. They may not want to vote. The process of obtaining an ID is no more burdensome than many other processes.”

Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was called as an expert witness for the plaintiffs, testified that the voter ID requirement hits black and Latino voters with a “double whammy.”

“Blacks and Latinos are less likely to have the ID, so the burden of obtaining one falls more heavily on them,” he said. “And it’s also harder for them to obtain ID because they have fewer resources.”

Based on a cost-benefit analysis of participating in elections, Burden testified that lower levels of education discourage prospective black and Latino voters from navigating bureaucracies, while they are also less likely to be able to take time off from work to appear in person at the Division of Motor Vehicles to obtain ID.

The court heard from three elderly, African-American witnesses who testified via videotape about hardships experienced while trying to obtain photo ID from the DMV when it turned out their birth certificates contained incorrect name spellings and dates of birth.

Rosanell Eaton, a 94-year-old resident of Louisburg, testified that she had to make 10 different trips to state DMV and federal Social Security offices over the course of 21 days in January 2015 to get her documents straightened out so she could obtain a photo ID and vote in the upcoming election. She said the DMV at first declined to issue her a photo ID because her birth certificate displayed her maiden name, but the Social Security number on file for her married name didn’t match the birth certificate. “It was stressful and difficult,” Eaton testified. “A headache and expensive.”

Judge Schroeder is giving each side 18 hours to present evidence. The plaintiffs have predicted the trial will wrap up at the earliest on Thursday, and possibly continue into next week.

Alonzo Phillips, a 61-year-old African-American resident of Scotland Neck in Halifax County, presented a stark profile in how rural poverty can create nearly insurmountable obstacles to accessing the voting booth under the new law. Phillips said in videotaped testimony taken last April that he moved to Scotland Neck from New York to take care of his mother in the early 1990s. His last ID was lost when he was robbed in New York, Phillips said. Neither he nor his mother drive, and Phillips said he relies on friends for monthly rides to the doctor’s office. Money for gas to pay for rides and cigarettes comes from a meager income eked out of mowing and painting jobs. Neither he nor his mother own a computer or a cell phone.

Phillips spoke about his support for James Mills, a successful candidate for mayor in Scotland Neck, as a reflection of how important voting is to him.

“He was the first black guy who ran,” Phillips said. “He said he wanted to go for it, so I said, ‘I’ll support you.’ A lot of people supported him. They were looking for a change, a little progress, jobs. It’s very important for the black community to be able to vote.”

Phillips testified that he attempted to obtain a photo ID 10 years ago because he was told he would need one to receive food stamps, and he made the 30-mile trip to the DMV in Roanoke Rapids with his uncle. Although he presented his Social Security card and voter registration card, Phillips said the DMV refused to issue an ID to him because his name is spelled “A-L-O-N-Z” on his birth certificate, which was issued in New York. It turned out that he didn’t actually need photo ID to obtain food stamps, so he didn’t pursue it any further. Until, that is, he learned that he would need it to vote in the 2016 election.

Thomas Farr credit Jordan Green
Thomas Farr (left), lead attorney for the state, leaves court.

Phillips said he believes he would have to travel to New York to get his birth certificate straightened out, but he planned to try his luck next time the mobile DMV comes to the senior center in Scotland Neck at the beginning of May.

“It’s just an obstacle,” Phillips said. “Now you’ve got to have an ID when you used to be able to walk in there and vote. It’s not a problem? What about me? I can’t vote. A lot of people will say, ‘I need an ID? I’ve got a voter registration card.’ There’s gonna be a lot of disappointed people.”

During cross-examination, Phillips half jokingly told Farr: “I was thinking about adding an O to my birth certificate. Would it be wrong? I’m spelling my name.”

Farr can be heard laughing with Phillips on the videotape.

“Would it be wrong?” Phillips asked again.

“I hear you,” Farr replied.