Wed July 9, 2014
From Allegations Of Discrimination To A 25-Minute Math Class: Court Hearing On NC Voting Law
Lawyers for the U.S. Justice Department will be back in a federal courtroom in Winston-Salem this morning to continue making their case that North Carolina's sweeping election overhaul is discriminatory. The hearings that began Monday morning have included personal stories of voting challenges, allegations of voter fraud, and even a 25-minute math exercise. WFAE's Michael Tomsic has been in Winston-Salem covering the hearings.
Why is the Justice Department suing North Carolina?
The Justice Department says North Carolina's election overhaul will deny or curtail African-Americans' right to vote. The NAACP, League of Women Voters and others have also filed lawsuits, and for now, they're all basically functioning as one lawsuit for now.
And you can look at this week as a mini-trial to decide whether to put the changes on hold until next summer, when a judge will rule whether the law is constitutional. Here are the changes in question for this November: cutting the early voting period by a week, eliminating same-day registration, and tossing out ballots that are cast in the wrong precincts.
The lawyers trying to put those changes on hold called the former director of North Carolina's state board of elections to the witness stand yesterday. What case did he make?
In short, that the changes could keep some people from voting. Gary Bartlett served as director of the state board of elections from 1993 to 2013. And he said that before early voting, lines were a much bigger problem, with some people waiting four or five hours to vote back in the 1990s.
He said that early voting immediately shortened lines, and that getting rid of it will probably bring those lines back. That will lead to angry voters and some people having to leave the lines to get back to work – they won't vote, he said.
How did lawyers for the state respond?
They repeatedly asked Bartlett if he ever surveyed voters about their preferences for early voting, why they left lines, etc. Bartlett said he had not done surveys – his comments were based on his experience.
And when lawyers for the state cross-examined him, they also handed him a report and a calculator. What happened next?
The hearing turned into a 25-minute math exercise. The state's lawyers tediously walked Bartlett through some addition and division to see if voter registrations were more likely to become inactive if done during same-day registration.
And that was their ultimate point with the exercise – that same-day registration opens the door for voter fraud. This is something the state's lawyers keep coming back to in the trial, arguing that the changes will make elections more honest.
But Bartlett and a county elections director have contended that there is little to no fraud.
Who else has testified?
An election expert from MIT talked about how the state's voting data clearly show that African-Americans will be disproportionately impacted by the changes. That's because they have disproportionately used early voting and same-day registration. In the 2012 election, for example, 70 percent of all African-Americans who voted, voted early. Compare that to about 50 percent of all white voters.
There were also personal stories. A pastor from a predominantly African-American church in Durham talked about the simple challenges some of his members face in just finding transportation to get to the polls. So a shorter early voting period, fewer days, could have a big impact on them.
And as a reminder of North Carolina's past, a 93-year-old woman described the literacy test she had to pass back in the 1940s in order to register to vote. All these years later, she helps people in her community register, and she's concerned about the changes.
What have the state's main counter-points been?
The state contends that the law is not discriminatory. And its lawyers say there has been no evidence of actual intent to discriminate, and that's a big part of the case. The state maintains that the changes are about efficiency and fraud.
In addition, the state points out there weren't any problems with the new changes in the May primary. Of course, May primaries don't have anywhere near the early voting turnout that November elections do, so it's not the best indicator. But the state contends that putting the changes on hold this late in the game will be chaos for county boards of elections.
What's next in the hearings?
More witnesses will take the stand Wednesday morning, and then the two sides will begin summarizing their legal arguments in the afternoon. That'll likely stretch into tomorrow, when the hearings will wrap up.
After that, it's unclear how soon the judge will decide whether to put the changes on hold.