In Winston-Salem this morning, a federal judge will continue questioning U.S. Justice Department lawyers on whether North Carolina's election overhaul violates the Voting Rights Act. All week, Judge Thom Schroeder has heard the Justice Department try to make that case, along with the NAACP, the League of Women Voters and other groups. They're suing North Carolina, and this week they're trying to convince a judge to put the changes on hold.
WFAE's Michael Tomsic has been in Winston-Salem covering the hearings.
Kevin Kniestedt: As a Justice Department lawyer began his closing arguments yesterday, Judge Schroeder challenged him on several points. What were they?
Michael Tomsic: One of his major questions was whether reducing the early voting period counts as a violation of the Voting Rights Act. The law North Carolina passed last year cuts the early voting period from 17 days to 10, and the Justice Department contends that's one of the changes that will deny or curtail the right to vote on account of race or color, which would be a violation of the Voting Rights Act.
Judge Schroeder pointed out that North Carolina didn't have early voting before 2000, so he asked if the Justice Department thought it was in violation of the Voting Rights Act back then. And some states don't have any early voting - are they in violation? The answer to both questions was no.
KEVIN: So how did the lawyer for the Justice Department explain that?
MICHAEL: He said that early voting in itself doesn't make or break whether you violate the Voting Rights Act - it's about the impact that changes to your voting system can have. He and other lawyers say that North Carolina has a proven track record of African-Americans relying heavily on early voting, and that's played a big role in their turnout rates increasing in the past decade.
Allison Riggs represents the League of Women Voters, and here's how she put it:
RIGGS: The loss of those provisions which have been so enabling, will create a situation where black voters don't have as much opportunity to participate.
That's been the heart of the case against the overhaul this week, and that's what the League of Women Voters, the Justice Department and others will continue to hammer home in their closing arguments today.
KEVIN: And what will the state focus on in its closing arguments?
MICHAEL: We got a preview of that in a state lawyer's cross-examination of a witness yesterday, who was trying to make the point that the changes will harm African-Americans. And the lawyer for the state's asked him, quite simply, is there anything in this overhaul that prevents voting based on race? If you look at the actual language in the law, the answer is no.
So while the Justice Department and others are arguing that the effect of the overhaul will disproportionately impact African-Americans, the state maintains there is nothing explicit about race in the law - based on the way it's written, it'll apply to everyone the same regardless of race.
In a nutshell, that's what this case will come down to. Does the judge buy the state's argument that the law literally does not make any changes based on race, or will he side with the Justice Department and others who contend that the effect of the change will have a major impact based on race.
KEVIN: And how soon will the judge rule?
MICHAEL: The judge said he wants the hearings to wrap up today, and then it could be weeks before he decides. As a reminder here, he's not ruling on whether the law is constitutional - that'll happen next summer. He's just ruling on whether some of the changes should be put on hold until then - specifically, cuts to early voting, getting rid of same-day registration, and tossing out ballots cast in the wrong precinct.