Legality of new voter ID mandate argued in federal trial
Posted January 25, 2016
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — North Carolina's new voter identification mandate, which starts with the March primary, is on trial in federal court in Winston-Salem this week.
The U.S. Justice Department, the state NAACP and several North Carolina residents contend the requirement to show photo ID to vote in person is illegal and will make it harder for black and Latino residents to cast ballots.
Rosanell Eaton, 94, of Louisburg, has been voting for more than 70 years, but she didn't have a valid driver's license when state lawmakers passed the voter ID law in 2013. She said it took her more than 100 miles of travel and about 60 hours of work to get one because her name was spelled differently on different forms of ID.
"It took her 10 trips," attorney Penda Hair said of Eaton, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "She had to go to the (Division of Motor Vehicles office) in her own county. Then she went to a Social Security office in Henderson. Then she went to the Social Security office in Raleigh, and all the people were telling her they couldn’t help her, they couldn’t fix the problem."
Hair said Eaton’s case isn’t unique. People who don’t have a driver's license are disproportionately black or Latino, most are low-income or elderly and many live in rural counties that don’t even have a DMV branch, she said. They may have to find the time and the money to travel up to 60 miles just to get a voter ID, she said.
"For other folks who have to face this kind of barrier, they may give up and not get the ID," Hair said.
Scotland Neck resident Alonzo Philip testified via video that he had been denied a driver's license by the state a decade ago because his name was misspelled on his birth certificate from New York. With no job, no income and no car, he said he had given up on the idea of returning to New York to fix the problem, and he's never needed a photo ID in North Carolina.
"I want to vote. Without an ID, I won’t be able to vote," Philip said.
The state's lawyers say there's no evidence anyone will be denied the chance to vote under the rules.
They told U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder that changes to the law that lawmakers passed last year will allow voters without a photo ID to cast a provisional ballot if they swear to having a reasonable impediment to getting one – anything from work hours to lack of transportation to family duties.
Barry Burden, a demographics expert from the University of Wisconsin, said many voters who could take advantage of that loophole probably aren't aware of it. The state has told voters for the last three years that they will need an ID to vote as of this year, but the voters haven’t been told about the new exceptions, and they might not head to the polls to find out, he said.
"They might believe they’re ineligible to vote," Burden said. "That might deter them from trying to vote in the first place, or (they think) the process will take so long they won’t vote."
The plaintiffs want the judge to throw out the law entirely, arguing that the state hasn’t set up rules for the exceptions. County officials could just throw those ballots out, they said.
Attorney Michael Glick added that the law still unjustly burdens minority voters for no reason, saying there is no evidence that in-person voter fraud is a problem in North Carolina.
"The defendants are sort of throwing up their hands and saying, ‘You know, we gave you this new process. Why can’t people just fill out the form? Why can’t they just say, 'Oh, we have a reasonable impediment?’'" Glick said. "We think that’s the wrong question to ask in a case like this. The question we would ask is, why have these hoops in place in the first place? Especially when it’s imposed on a protected class of citizens that the law has recognized."