VOTER ID DEBATE COMES TO W-S
Monday marked day one of an injunction hearing against NC’s Voter ID Law
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“Forward together. Not one step back.” It’s a refrain commonly heard at Moral Mondays, a series of rallies that began last summer as a response to several conservative policies passed by the North Carolina General Assembly. While they are usually held in Raleigh, Monday’s event featured a crowd gathered on Corpening Plaza in downtown Winston-Salem that turned out to protest a new voter ID law scheduled to take effect in 2016.
Speakers included state NAACP president Rev. William Barber II, local pastor Rev. T Anthony Spearman, Rabbi Mark Strauss-Cohn of Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem and others who came to express their outrage at the law.
In his 20-minute address, Barber articulated the struggle African Americans have faced in obtaining the right to vote, pointing out that both Republicans and Democrats at different points have opposed it.
“When it comes to our voting rights, we’ll fight anybody, anywhere, anytime,” he said. “This is a moral fight. This is a fight of history. This is a blood fight.”
Barber alternated between citing scripture, making historical references and condemning the current legislation. He referred to the legislature’s desire to maintain the status quo, which he mocked by pointing out that the status quo once included same-day registration and a 17-day early voting period.
“You can t have it both ways,” he said. House Bill 589, passed last summer, requires voters to show one of eight acceptable forms of identification at the polls with the goal of reducing voter fraud. It also eliminates same-day registration and shortens the early voting period from 17 days to 10. The law has been criticized by the US Justice Department, the NAACP, and other organizations that believe the law is aimed at suppressing the vote of African Americans.
A formal trial is scheduled for 2015, but a preliminary hearing that began Monday is being held this week in an attempt to block certain provisions from going into effect before the 2014 midterm elections. These include the ones dealing with same day registration, early voting, and the elimination of the pre-registration program for 16 and 17-year olds who will be 18 on election day.
“This is the worst attempt to abridge and suppress the right to vote since the days of Jim Crow,” Barber told reporters outside the US District Court in Winston-Salem on Monday.
“If we had maintained the status quo when things had started, women would’ve never gotten the right to vote, or young people wouldn’t have, or African Americans,” he said.
“In essence what they’re saying is, even if these laws are unconstitutional, because we’ve already started using them we should not change.”
The injunction is being brought jointly between the Justice Department, NAACP, ACLU, and the civil rights organization the Advancement Project.
In her opening statement to the court, Advancement Project co-director Penda Hair made reference to the 2012 Supreme Court decision Shelby v. Holder, in which the court ruled that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was unconstitutional. This removed the requirement of states to receive federal preclearance for any changes made to state voting laws.
Hair said it was “common sense” that North Carolina’s law was designed to prevent minorities and low-income residents from voting.
Catherine Meza, an attorney with the US Justice Department, noted in her statement that after the Shelby ruling the voter ID bill went from 16 pages to 57 pages.
“We are asserting that there were procedural departures from the legislative process,” she said.
North Carolina has had early voting since 2000 and same day registration since 2007. In the 2012 presidential election, 2.7 million people voted early.
Alexander Peters, representing the attorney general’s office, said it is unreasonable for the law to be enjoined when some provisions have already gone into effect. He said such sudden changes could pose problems for election officials since the budget for elections has already been determined.
Peters also said he thinks the high voter registration and turnout numbers surrounding presidential elections are anomalies, fueled by the enthusiasm surrounding Barack Obama’s candidacy in 2008 and the fact that North Carolina was in play as a battleground state.
“They ignore other things going on,” he said.
Peters said that while he recognizes that the plaintiffs feel things like same day registration and early voting make for good policy, they are not entitled to them.
“Everything they have submitted to the court in those thousands of pages is speculative,” he said.
The hearing also featured witnesses who were called to testify about their experiences with voter discrimination. This included Guilford County Commissioner Carolyn Coleman, who told the court about her experiences registering voters on college campuses in Alabama in the 1960s and later came to North Carolina in 1979, where she served as the state director of the NAACP. Coleman got to know the eastern part of the state, which historically has been very poor, and the polls not as accessible.
She said the shortening of the early voting period will have a negative effect on the segment of the population with multiple jobs and those without access to transportation.
“If you don’t have transportation, it can be very discouraging,” she said.
Coleman also said she thinks the elimination of same day registration would be devastating.
“Everything that I’ve worked for the last 50 years is being lost,” she said.
The hearing is expected to last until Thursday, and then Judge Thomas Schroeder will make a decision about any immediate changes to the law. !