Voting rights on trial in North Carolina

The signing ceremony for the Voting Rights Act of 1965

The signing ceremony for the Voting Rights Act of 1965

Nearly 150 years after Reconstruction, African-Americans in North Carolina are seeking a preliminary injunction this week against a state law that they say disproportionately burdens their right to vote.

Attorneys for the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, the Advancement Project and other civil rights groups are bringing the challenge in federal court. Judge Thomas D. Schroeder of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina will determine whether or not implementation of HB 589 should be delayed until a full trial begins next year.

Passed almost one year ago, the North Carolina law instituted a number of changes to the voting process, including requirement of voter ID; elimination of same-day registration; reduction of early voting days; and prohibition of pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds.

The plaintiffs contend that these provisions, among others, violate the 14th Amendment and 15th Amendment to the Constitution as well as Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which bans discriminatory voting procedures. Defenders of the law say it simply reduces voter fraud and election costs.

The U.S. Department of Justice is supporting the lawsuit, adding firepower to an already politically charged debate.

“The [North Carolina] state legislature took extremely aggressive steps to curtail the voting rights of African-Americans,” said Attorney General Eric Holder last September. “This is an intentional step to break a system that was working and it defies common sense.”

Attorneys representing seven North Carolina college students are also part of the challenge, making the unique argument that HB 589 violates the 26th Amendment to the Constitution.

“There’s an unprecedented effort nationally by Republican-controlled legislatures to restrict the franchise in a way we haven’t seen in a long time,” attorney Marc Elias told The New York Times. “Young voting in particular is a part of that effort.”

In the first days of the trial, several witnesses have already taken the stand.

Carolyn Coleman, North Carolina State Director for the NAACP, was asked for her reaction to HB 589. “Everything I worked for over 15 years was almost being lost,” Coleman said. “I would have to start working for the same things. I continue to work to see this changed.”

State Rep. Rick Glazier expressed concern about the original passage of the law, noting a lack of transparency and an expedited schedule, even in the face of intense opposition. “Bar none, it was the worst legislative process I’ve ever been through,” he said.

And 93-year-old Rosanell Eaton, lead plaintiff in the case, recalled voting for the first time at age 19 in the Jim Crow era. At her polling site, three white men told her to stand upright, look straight ahead and recite the Preamble to the Constitution without error. Only then was she permitted to register.

In a recent interview on MSNBC, Eaton was evidently dismayed by the current situation.

“I can’t imagine that I have to go through the same thing I had to go through 75 years ago,” she said. “It is so horrible to think about going back where we came from.”

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