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Four Reasons Why The Federal Voting Trial Matters

An image of a person rallying outside a voting rights trial in Winston-Salem
Kimberly Pierce Cartwright
WNCU Public Radio 90.7 FM
A person rallies outside the federal trial in Winston-Salem, NC

The first week of a federal trial challenging North Carolina’s voting regulations is wrapping up in Winston-Salem. The plaintiffs - a group including the U.S. Department of Justice,  the NAACP, and League of Women Voters - aim to prove whether House Bill 589, enacted in 2013 by a Republican-led state legislature discriminated against minority voters. The law:

  • Requires photo ID (this has since been amended and is not being considered in the trial)
  • Reduces the number of early voting days from 17 to 10
  • Bans out-of-precinct voting
  • Ends same-day voter registration

This trial is expected to last several weeks, and could set precedents for controversial voting laws in other states. Here are four reasons why the case is one to keep an eye on:
North Carolina May Have To Go Back To The Rules of The Federal Voting Rights Act

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 mandated that states get pre-clearance from the federal government before changing voting laws.  This law was put in place in the 1960s as a response to racial discrimination and minority disenfranchisement in predominantly southern states. But in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court shut down this provision of the VRA, allowing southern states with a history of racial discrimination to change election laws without required federal approval. 

Within a couple days of the Supreme Court ruling, the North Carolina legislature quickly movedHouse Bill 589 through the General Assembly, including all the new voting regulations the plaintiffs say target minority voters. Researchshows black and Latino voters are more likely to use resources like early voting, same day registration and out of precinct balloting.

Even though early voting has been reduced from 17 day to 10 days, state lawmakers still say that remains among the longest early voting periods in the nation. If the federal district court rules that the legislature “disproportionately burdened” minority voters, pre-clearance by the federal government could be reinstated for North Carolina.

It May Be A Step To a U.S. Supreme Court Case

Regardless of which side wins the case or how the judge rules, this challenge will almost certainly be appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Presiding over this case is Judge Thomas D. Schroeder, a conservative judge, nominated to the federal bench by President George W. Bush. Last summer he ruled against a preliminary injunction that sought to stop provisions of the law from going into effect for the 2014 election.

The Fourth Circuit has already heard part of this challenge and ruled 2-1 on appeal to block part of the North Carolina law from moving forward.

It Shows That History May Be Repeating Itself

The state legislature’s voting regulations helped spark a weekly grassroots civil rights protests called “Moral Monday” to form outside the General Assembly building. North Carolina NAACP leader Rev. William Barber has been leading the protests. Barber is also at the head of current protests outside the trial in Winston-Salem with the slogan “This is our Selma.” The catchphrase echoes the civil rights campaign to end racial discrimination and disenfranchisement in Selma, Alabama 50 years ago. It shows leaders like Barber are not hesitant to bring up the South’s past of racial inequality to demonstrate that a similar scene may be playing out in North Carolina.

It Could Affect Gov. McCrory And The Legislature’s Approval Ratings

A recent Public Policy Polling surveyshows Gov. Pat McCrory is at his lowest approval rating since he took office in January, 2013

It may be difficult for the plaintiffs to prove the legislature intended to discriminate against minority voters. But Gov. McCrory, or other state lawmakers, have yet to testify in court to clarify the legislature's intention with the voter regulations. However, even if state lawmakers did testify, a North Carolina general statutesays members of the legislature shall not be held liable outside the General Assembly for speech spoken in the building. This makes intent spoken inside the General Assembly hard to prove.

Nevertheless, if a court ruling eventually proves the voting laws unconstitutional, it may not fair well alongside other controversial policies from the Republican-led General Assembly. This includes the legislature's decision to limit unemployment benefits, and choosing not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond is a podcast producer for WUNC.
Jeff Tiberii is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Jeff joined WUNC in 2011. During his 20 years in public radio, he was Morning Edition Host at WFDD and WUNC’s Greensboro Bureau Chief and later, the Capitol Bureau Chief. Jeff has covered state and federal politics, produced the radio documentary “Right Turn,” launched a podcast, and was named North Carolina Radio Reporter of the Year four times.
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