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Trial to start in lawsuit over North Carolina’s voter-ID law

Armenta Eaton and her mother, Rosanell Eaton, 94, at their home in Louisburg, N.C. The elder Eaton is a plaintiff in the lawsuit over North Carolina’s voter-ID law. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Rosanell Eaton still remembers the day 70 years ago when she traveled two hours with her mother in a mule-drawn wagon to register to vote at the county courthouse. Before she could, she was forced to take a literacy test.

“What are you here for, little lady?” Eaton recalls a man at the courthouse asking her. When she told him, he instructed her, “Don’t miss a word, and speak the preamble of the Constitution of the United States of America.”

“Without missing a word, I did it,” she said.

Now 94, the North Carolina resident has voted in every election since and worked to register thousands of others to cast their own ballots. But last year, because of a new state voting law, Eaton said she and her daughter had to make 10 trips to the Division of Motor Vehicles, drive more than 200 miles and spend more than 20 hours to obtain one of the required forms of voter identification because the name on her identifying document, her driver’s license, did not exactly match that on her voter registration.

The photo-ID rules — part of one of the strictest voting laws in the country — will go on trial in a federal courthouse Monday in the first battle over the ballot this presidential year.

This is why the Voting Rights Act is on trial in North Carolina

The ID requirements, set to be used in the March presidential primary, were included in a bill passed by North Carolina’s legislature that also reduced the number of days of early voting, prohibited people from registering and voting on the same day, stopped ballots cast in the wrong precinct from being counted, and ended the practice of preregistering teenagers before they turned 18.

Republican legislators say they imposed the new restrictions to combat voter fraud and to preserve the integrity of the voting system. In court papers filed last week, lawyers for the state said the groups that have challenged the law have found “no evidence that any single voter will be unable to vote under the photo ID law.”

Before a 2013 Supreme Court decision, North Carolina would not have been able to enact the voting changes without the approval of the Justice Department or a federal court. Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, North Carolina was one of nine mostly Southern states, along with individual jurisdictions in six other states, that because of their history of discrimination were required to receive federal approval, or "pre-clearance," before making changes in voting laws.

Within weeks of the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which effectively nullified the part of the Voting Rights Act requiring such permissions, North Carolina passed its new law. The Justice Department and several civil rights groups sued.

How has voting changed since Shelby County v. Holder?

"What happened in North Carolina and other states immediately after Shelby is an indication of how wrongly decided that case was," former U.S. attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a recent interview.

Last summer, U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder held a three-week trial on most of the new voting law. Schroeder, who is deciding the case without a jury, has not ruled.

But on the eve of that trial, the North Carolina legislature added an amendment modifying the photo-ID requirement in the law, so that section was not part of the case. It is the photo-ID requirement that will go on trial Monday.

Even with the amendment, which allows certain exceptions, civil rights leaders argue that the new rules will disenfranchise minority voters, who are less likely to have one of the required forms of photo ID — and they have compared the fight for voting rights now to the marches in Selma, Ala., during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, which sued the state, called the law an “immoral and unconstitutional burden on voters.”

“We are prepared to challenge this modern form of Jim Crow in the court,” Barber said.

North Carolina’s Republican governor, Pat McCrory, declined to comment. Thomas A. Farr, a lawyer representing the state, also declined to comment. But in court last summer, he took issue with the Selma comparison.

“What is the dastardly thing that North Carolina has done that has been equated to the terrible things that happened in Selma?” Farr asked Schroeder. “What they did, Your Honor, is they enacted election regulations that represent the majority rule in most of the states in this country.”

Suing the state

Four years ago, North Carolina went from one of the lowest-ranked states in voter turnout to one of the highest, after civil rights groups pushed for and won measures to increase voter participation, including the expansion of early voting, same-day registration and the counting of out-of-precinct provisional ballots.

“Turnout among North Carolina’s African American voters skyrocketed from 41.9 percent in 2000 to 68.5 percent in 2012,” Barber said in an interview. The Latino electorate also grew in numbers and political participation, he said.

“Given these demographic shifts, and without any prospects of expanding registration among white voters,” Barber said, “evidence shows that state legislators intentionally sought to restrict opportunities for voters of color to participate, because it makes no sense otherwise.”

In June 2013, the Supreme Court, in its 5-to-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, ruled that it was up to Congress to devise a new formula to determine which states should be subject to the requirements of pre-clearance by the Justice Department. Congress has not acted.

Supreme Court stops use of key part of Voting Rights Act

Without congressional action, no states or counties are required to obtain federal approval before implementing new voting laws.

One month later, North Carolina’s General Assembly passed the bill. Shortly afterward, McCrory signed it.

“Common practices like boarding an airplane and purchasing Sudafed require photo ID, and we should expect nothing less for the protection of our right to vote,” McCrory said then.

The NAACP and other groups sued North Carolina, saying that voter fraud was not a significant problem in the state and that racial minorities would be disproportionately affected as they were less likely to possess the newly required forms of identification.

In September 2013, the Justice Department also sued North Carolina. Because Justice officials could no longer use Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which had given them pre-clearance authority, they turned to Section 2, which prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language-minority group.

For the government’s top lawyer on voting rights, the presidential election has begun

They pointed to a report released earlier that year by the North Carolina State Board of Elections showing that African Americans disproportionately lacked photo identification cards issued by the state’s Division of Motor Vehicles.

“The right to vote is one of the sacred rights that we hold dear as a nation,” said Jocelyn Samuels, who was then acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division. “North Carolina adopted these changes in a rushed process, despite evidence before the legislators that a number of these changes will harm minority voters.”

‘Reasonable impediment’

Eaton, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, lives with her daughter in a rural area of Louisburg, about 45 minutes from Raleigh. After she registered to vote in the 1940s, Eaton became a poll worker and eventually was chosen by the county commissioner to serve as a registrar commissioner and help others register to vote. Over the years, she said, she registered more than 4,000 people.

“I think it is because my foreparents or forefathers didn’t have the opportunity of registering and voting,” she said at a court hearing.

But after McCrory signed the voting bill, Eaton herself had difficulty getting new voter-identification documents.

“The spelling of her name on her various underlying documents didn’t match the way her name was portrayed on her voter registration,” said Denise Lieberman, a senior attorney with the Advancement Project, which represents the NAACP and other plaintiffs. “And that’s one of the more common reasons that people have these difficulties complying with North Carolina’s ­voter-ID law.”

Eaton’s driver’s license had her name as Rosanell Eaton. But the name on her North Carolina voter-registration card was Rosanell Johnson Eaton, a combination of her maiden and married names. In trying to correct the name on her driver’s license by going to several DMV locations, she discovered that her birth date on her Social Security card was 1923 rather than 1921. She believed that in order to vote, she needed to correct the discrepancy to match her birth certificate and guarantee that her birth certificate and other legal documents were consistent.

Last summer, before the trial was to begin, the North Carolina General Assembly passed an amendment that allows voters to cast provisional ballots if they are unable to obtain one of the specified forms of identification and if they can show they have “a reasonable impediment” to obtaining it, including lack of transportation, illness, lack of a birth certificate or work schedule.

Lawyers representing North Carolina say education and training efforts on the new law are “robust,” according to their trial brief.

But civil rights leaders argue that state elections officials have insufficiently educated the public about the amendment and that there are many unanswered questions about what constitutes “a reasonable impediment.”

Voters who don’t think they have the right documents will be intimidated and stay away from the polls, Barber said.

“The right to vote is supposed to be constitutional, not confusing,” he said.

Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.