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Day One Of Voter ID Trial: Elderly Voters Face Tough Time Getting Photo ID

Photo: Rosanell Eaton and Mary E. Perry
Jorge Valencia
Rosanell Eaton and Mary E. Perry attended a hearing in a challenge to North Carolina's Voter ID law in 2014 at U.S. District Court in Winston-Salem.

Elderly minority people who are unfamiliar with North Carolina’s new photo identification requirement for voting are likely to not participate in national or local elections because they may find it difficult to obtain proper documentation to show at the ballot, according to testimony in federal court on Monday.

Three North Carolina citizens who are black and elderly were unable to easily obtain photo identification, which they planned to use at the voting booth, because name, date or typographical information was inconsistent in documents such as their birth certificate or voter registration card, according to their testimony.

“It was just very depressing because I couldn’t find anyone to help me to get the ball rolling,” said Sylvia Kent of Roxboro. Kent said she has been unable to obtain identification for a 69-year-old shut-in sister whose birth certificate, issued six years after her sister was born, gives an incorrect date of birth.

The voters testified during the first day of a trial over North Carolina’s 2013 law that requires voters to be asked for photo identification. Plaintiffs, which include the U.S. Department of Justice and the state chapter of the NAACP, argue the law passed by the Republican-majority legislature target minorities who typically support Democratic candidates. Attorneys for the state say the measure is intended to prevent voter fraud.

The witnesses included 94-year-old Rosannell Eaton of Louisburg. She said she needed to obtain a new driver’s license before the Voter ID provision of the law went into effect this year because her driver’s license, in which she appears under he married name Rosa Johnson Eaton, does not match her voter registration card, in which she appears with her maiden name Rosanell Eaton.

Eaton made 11 visits to state agencies—the Division of Motor Vehicles and various Social Security offices— over 21 days in January 2015 to reconcile records between her driver’s license and her voter registration card. She succeeded only after traveling more than 200 miles and waiting for more than 20 hours, she said.

Eaton, who’s one of the plaintiffs in the case, lamented the new law in a recorded video deposition.

“If the system isn’t broken, why are you going to try to mess with trying to fix it?” Eaton said.

But Thomas Farr, an attorney representing the state, said only a small number of people may not have the necessary forms to readily obtain state-issued photo identification to use at the poll. He added that people who can’t obtain photo identification will be able to vote under a new exception approved by state lawmakers last summer.

The exception says voters who claim a “reasonable impediment” to getting an ID will be allowed to cast a provisional ballot. South Carolina has a similar provision that has been upheld by a federal panel.

Republican lawmakers presented the exception last June, saying they were responding to feedback the State Board of Elections had received about the new ID requirement, and that they wanted to ensure all voters could cast a ballot.

“The evidence here does not rise anywhere close to showing discriminatory intent,” Farr said in court.

This is the second trial in which U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder, who was nominated by President George W. Bush, hears arguments about the state’s 2013 voting law. Last summer, he heard arguments about provisions that reduced the number of days for early voting, ended same-day registration, eliminated pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds and stopped provisional ballots cast outside the correct precinct from being counted.

Arguments over the Voter ID requirement are being held separately because lawmakers created exceptions to it the month before the initial trial. The new arguments could last through next week.

It is unclear when Schroeder will issue rulings. North Carolina’s early voting for the presidential primaries begins March 3.

Jorge Valencia has been with North Carolina Public Radio since 2012. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Jorge studied journalism at the University of Maryland and reported for four years for the Roanoke Times in Virginia before joining the station. His reporting has also been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, and the Baltimore Sun.
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