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New N.C. voting law will hurt minority voting, witness says

New N.C. voting law will hurt minority voting, witness says

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People stand outside the Ward Federal Building before the preliminary hearing on the state's new voter ID law on Monday, July 7, 2014 in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Updated 6:58 p.m.

North Carolina has a long and established history of voter discrimination against blacks and that history would continue under a new state voting law, an expert testified this afternoon in U.S. District Court in Winston-Salem.

Poll taxes were on the books until the 1920s, said Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And literacy tests, in which blacks were sometimes forced to read the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, remain on the books, even though they aren’t enforced, Burden said.

Burden was testifying in a hearing on a preliminary injunction to block provisions of North Carolina’s voting law that was passed in 2013. Those provisions include reducing the number of days for early voting from 17 to 10, eliminating same-day voter registration and prohibiting county elections officials from counting ballots cast by voters in the correct county but wrong precinct.

Burden described a history in which black men after the Civil War were granted the right to vote and did so in high numbers. When voter participation by blacks increased, white leaders changed the law to make voting more difficult for blacks, Burden said.

And for years, voter participation by blacks was low because of obstacles, he said. But starting in 2000, legislators expanded early voting and instituted same-day voter registration, he said. During the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, voter turnout by blacks was about equal to that of whites, he said.

But the new law, known as the Voter Information Verification Act, would effectively turn the clock back on those gains, Burden said.

The socioeconomic conditions for blacks in North Carolina are worse than they are for whites, Burden said. In addition, blacks use early voting, same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct voting at a higher rate than whites.

Because of that, any reduction or elimination of those provisions will disproportionately affect black voters, Burden said.

The U.S. Department of Justice, the state NAACP, the League of Women Voters and a number of other groups have filed lawsuits challenging the state’s new law and are seeking to block many of the law’s provisions from taking effect for the Nov. 4 general election.

They allege that the law violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as well as the 14th, 15th, and 26th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

Burden was the last witness for the plaintiffs. State attorneys had listed Kim Strach, the current director for the State Board of Elections, and Janet Thornton, an expert for the defense, as witnesses, but decided not to present any evidence.

Final arguments started this afternoon and will continue Thursday morning. U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder is not expected to render a decision at the end of the hearing.


Posted 2:02 p.m.

More than 700,000 black voters would have been affected by North Carolina’s new voting law had it been in place during the 2012 presidential election, according to a political science expert who testified this morning in U.S. District Court in Winston-Salem.

Charles Stewart, a professor of political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began his testimony late Tuesday and continued this morning in a hearing on a preliminary injunction to block provisions of North Carolina’s voting law that was passed in 2013. Those provisions include reducing the number of days for early voting from 17 to 10, eliminating same-day voter registration and prohibiting county elections officials from counting ballots cast by voters in the correct county but wrong precinct.

The U.S. Department of Justice, the state NAACP, the League of Women Voters and a number of other groups and individual plaintiffs are suing North Carolina and Gov. Pat McCrory, saying that the law violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as well as the 14th, 15th and 26th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

Stewart said he based his analysis on data from the 2012 presidential election. More than 1 million blacks voted in North Carolina in that election, when President Barack Obama was running for re-election. Stewart testified that the new law would have negatively impacted 70 percent of blacks who voted early. He said those black voters would have been burdened either by the elimination of the first seven days of early voting or through longer lines because of the shortened period of early voting.

Thomas Farr, one of the attorneys for the state, cross-examined Stewart for about two hours this morning. Farr pointed out that Florida didn’t see a significant decline in black voter turnout after Florida reduced the number of days for early voting. He also noted that the states adjacent to North Carolina — South Carolina and Virginia — don’t have early voting or same-day voter registration.

Farr said that the majority of states don’t have early voting. According to Farr, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia also don’t have provisional voting, referring to voters who vote in the correct county but wrong precinct.

Farr also asked Stewart why he didn’t conduct analysis on how voter turnout might be affected by North Carolina’s law. Stewart said that kind of analysis would require additional data over a number of years and would be labor-intensive.

Stewart was also questioned about testimony he gave in a lawsuit regarding changes in Florida’s law that required federal approval. This was before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June 2013 that struck down the formula used in requiring some states and communities to get federal approval before any voting changes. The ruling weakened Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Stewart acknowledged that the court approved Florida’s voting changes. He later added that Florida legislators expanded the number of early voting days after complaints of long lines in the 2012 presidential election.

Throughout the hearing this week, attorneys for the plaintiffs have called witnesses and experts who testified that the new law would harm black voters. In opening arguments, they said the new law is comparable to past attempts to disenfranchise black voters. Two Democratic state legislators have testified that Republican legislators rushed the law through soon after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

State attorneys have argued that there was no discriminatory intent and that the Voting Rights Act only guarantees an “equal opportunity” to vote.

Testimony could wrap up this afternoon, and final arguments could begin either later today or Thursday. U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder has not said when he will rule on the preliminary injunction.

mhewlett@wsjournal.com

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