Hearing on NC voter ID law draws national attention

Rev. John Mendez, of Winston-Salem, shares his story with the protesters at the 13th Moral Monday protest as Rev. William Barber, the president of the N.C. NAACP, looks on. (Andrew Dye/Journal)

Rev. John Mendez, of Winston-Salem, shares his story with the protesters at the 13th Moral Monday protest as Rev. William Barber, the president of the N.C. NAACP, looks on. (Andrew Dye/Journal)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — For Rev. John Mendez, longtime activist and pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, voting is more than just casting a ballot in a particular election, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

“I believe that voting is important to the African-American community because it is the only place where powerless people can be powerful,” he said in court papers filed in U.S. District Court in the Middle District of North Carolina as part of a trio of lawsuits challenging the state’s new election law.

“It is where individuals who have been excluded and oppressed can find their voice. Voting makes you feel equal to everyone else, which is not the everyday experience for many African-Americans. At its core, voting gives individuals a sense of dignity.”

Mendez and others believe that the right to vote, especially for blacks, is under attack in the form of the new election law that Gov. Pat McCrory signed last August. The law, referred to in lawsuits as House Bill 589 and known officially as the Voter Information Verification Act, includes a number of provisions, the most well-known being the requirement that voters present a photo ID, beginning in 2016.

But the law also reduces the number of days for early voting from 17 to 10, eliminates same-day voter registration, and prohibits county officials from counting ballots cast by voters in the right county but wrong precinct. In addition, the law gets rid of pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, increases the number of poll observers that each political party assigns during an election and allows a registered voter in a county to challenge another voter’s right to cast a ballot.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder will hear arguments on whether to block many of the law’s provisions from taking effect during the Nov. 4 general election in a case that’s being closely watched across North Carolina and throughout the country.

“It’s the single biggest law curtailing voting and registration rules that we have seen since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act,” said Rick Hasen, a professor who specializes in election law at the University of California at the Irvine School of Law. “It’s not any single provision that is worse than. It’s all just rolled into one.”

Law found beginnings in U.S. Supreme Court ruling

On June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that many civil-rights activists saw as a gut-punch to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The court struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that required states and other communities to seek federal approval for changes in voting laws. Forty counties in North Carolina had been under the Section 5 requirement.

According to motions filed by opponents, the House had passed that April a smaller version of House Bill 589 that only dealt with requirements for photo ID. Then it sat in a Senate committee for several months before it was revived again after the Supreme Court ruling, the motions said.

The same day that the Supreme Court issued its ruling, Sen. Tom Apodaca, the chairman of the Senate Rules committee, was quoted as saying, “Now we can go with the full bill.”

Nothing happened until July 23, 2013, when House Bill 589 expanded from 16 pages to 57 pages and included a number of other provisions, including reducing the days for early voting. The expanded bill passed both the House and Senate on July 25. McCrory signed the legislation into law on Aug. 12.

Hasen said legislators in North Carolina would never have been able to pass the elections law so quickly if the U.S. Supreme Court had not gotten rid of federal pre-clearance rules. The Supreme Court ruling also paved the way for Texas to start enforcing its Voter ID law, which Hasen called one of the most restrictive in the country.

Opponents charge that the Republican-led General Assembly and McCrory rushed through this law to disenfranchise blacks and Hispanics, elderly voters, young voters and poor voters.

The issue of racism runs through the court papers filed in the case. In the preliminary motions filed by the U.S. Department of Justice and other plaintiffs, including the state NAACP, the history of racial discrimination in North Carolina is told.

That history includes references to poll taxes and literacy tests that were used against black voters. Up until 1970, the motions said, blacks were still forced to read parts of the U.S. Constitution in order to vote in some parts of the state.

Between 1971 and 2012, the Justice Department objected 64 times to changes in North Carolina’s voting laws that were subject to federal approval under the Voting Rights Act, according to the motions.

Opponents argue that between 1999 and 2009, state legislators approved changes in elections laws, including early voting, that improved voter turnout and led to North Carolina being ranked 11th in the country for voter participation. All those changes are targeted in the new election law, they say, and the curtailment or elimination of those changes disproportionately affects black voters.

‘Equal opportunity’

In court papers, state attorneys argue that the law isn’t racially motivated and that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 only guarantees an “equal opportunity” to vote. State legislators, they say, have the authority to draft legislation regulating the time, place and manner in which elections are held and said that Congress doesn’t require that states provide things such as early voting or that states have to count provisional ballots.

“Returning North Carolina to rules in place prior to the fairly recent enactment of the rules changed by the challenged provisions no more violates the law now than it did in the absence of the voting practices favored by the Plaintiffs,” state attorneys argue in court filings.

McCrory issued a statement when he signed the law saying that 34 other states have passed laws requiring voters to present a photo ID and that it would not unduly burden voters. Some Republicans have cited the need to guard against voter fraud, even though statistics from state elections officials indicate that there is no widespread in-person voter fraud.

Specifically, state attorneys argue that opponents are trying to squeeze the requirements of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into Section 2. They say it simply doesn’t fit.

“There is no “neutral” practice here that prevents them from registering or voting on the same terms and conditions as other members of the electorate,” state attorneys argue. “Instead, each and every voter has the ability to control his or her own conduct as it relates to registering to vote and voting according to the rules that apply to everyone.”

A closely watched outcome

The hearings in U.S. District Court in Winston-Salem will last four to five days. It’s unclear whether Schroeder will issue a decision immediately after the hearings’ conclusion or at a later time. Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina, said Schroeder has indicated he understands the urgency and will issue a decision soon after the hearings are over.

Schroeder will not only have to decide whether to grant a preliminary injunction. He will also have to decide whether to dismiss the lawsuits, which state attorneys have requested. A trial on the lawsuits isn’t expected to commence until summer 2015.

Hasen said the case will be closely watched because North Carolina’s law is unique, Hasen said. Opponents challenging election laws here in North Carolina and in Texas are using Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, he said.

“These are the first cases involving Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act” where the U.S. Department of Justice has gotten involved, Hasen said.

And in the lawsuits, the justice department is asking for extraordinary relief under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act, which would allow a court to subject a state to federal approval for voting changes if it found intentional racial discrimination.

Brook said that no state has gone as far as North Carolina. The ACLU represents several of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits and preliminary injunction, including the League of Women Voters.

“This is really the mother of all voter suppression measures,” he said.

Brook called the measures “unnecessary restrictions that cut right to the core of democracy and serve to exclude marginalized North Carolinians at the ballot box.”

“No one should be comfortable with that,” he said.

19 comments

  • j r nance (@rnance1950)

    Nobody is Excluding anyone from any Race, Black, White or Naturalized Citizens from Voting like this Mendez character is trying to tell everybody, heck, all a person needs is a ID & I guarantee everybody that’s still living in America today has one because if you receive ANY Government Benefits, go to School/College, drive/buy a car, visit another country, borrow money from a bank or other institutions, go to a Medical Facility like a Hospital or Doctor, do just about Anything & everything YOU HAVE to HAVE a ID & don’t tell me everybody doesn’t have one because if you do you’re Lying, plus the New Voter Law doesn’t go into effect until the election of 2016, over 2 years from now & if by chance there is 1 or 2 people in the entire state of NC that doesn’t have one surely they can go the their nearest DMV Office & they will issue you one for FREE!!!

  • l337g33k

    Stopped reading after Mendez started race baiting. But to touch on the same things over and over… Why is it such a big deal to require ID? ID is required for nearly every aspect of modern life. Same day registration and same day voting has always seemed sketchy, especially by the unscrupulous likes of ACORN.

  • FaithC

    You have to show an ID to use a credit card, get on a plane, at the bank, to get a job, buy booze or cigarettes, buy lottery ticket, (you have to be 18). I did not see any of these people complaining when they had to get a photo ID to collect their government handout or to buy their booze or smokes…so why are they complaining now?

    • charles

      You are right, you have to show ID when you get stopped at any check point.Show ID when you leave the U.S. So what is the problem????????????????????????????????????????????

    • Mr. Perfect

      FaithC you do not need an i.d to use a credit card ever heard of sliding it yourself? this isnt 1984 honey. Plus every time I purchase a lottery ticket, buy beer I never get asked to present anything. so your findings are weak to say the least.

      • FaithC

        I am sure you are well over 18 and well look your age, Honey. If you were 18, 19, 20 you would need an ID to purchase booze, cigs and lottery tickets and you would be asked for it. Also there are places that they have to slide the card for you and if you use a credit card you will be asked for ID. I understand you don’t get out much and know any of these things. Well now you do.

  • dobydog1

    you need a photo ID to get a job, to cash a check, to get some prescriptions, to drive, to get into a school, to get government assistance but you should not need one to vote? I can remember when you had to be registered vote 90 days before the election. I also remember when you could vote on 1 day in November. I think the law will stop people from voting who are dead and/or leave in a vacant lot.

    • FaithC

      Mr. Perfect…I know you posted this under my name. Grow up and get out of your mom’s basement. By the way most of the rednecks I know do vote.

  • Eagle1

    How does an ID suppress a vote? Does it keep them from getting an EBT card, buying booze at the liquer store, cashing a check, etc? Mendez is another lying race-baiter.

    • Stephen

      It doesn’t keep them from voting. They just want something to complain about. They also want to be able to vote multiple times and elect a certain race. That’s all there is to this PERIOD!

  • Mark

    Eight comment already and they are all about ID. There were many more new rules implemented that make up the new laws. They are all about stifling the vote after we had been making it easier and more accomodating for everyone. Remember the long wait times in the past?

    • Stephen

      If you are waiting in long lines or unable to vote after these laws, then you are quite simply an idiot, PERIOD!

    • Doc Bennett

      And what else do the majority of the people complaining have to do besides wait in line ? Working at a job? Or maybe waiting for their unemployment check/debit card, waiting on a free health care, waiting on their social security disability attorney to call their Obama phone?

  • Stephen

    This is just another pathetic plea for these people to continue voter fraud. If you are not for Voter ID, then you are for voter fraud, PERIOD! And this clown has the nerve to call himself a Reverend! I’ll bet that “Reverend” is self claimed and has no educational background. Typical of these people. I for one will not be intimidated or back down from them. We, as a people, need to continue to stand against frauds like this. What a clown!

  • Doc Bennett

    And the new buzz word is ” disenfranchise “. First it was the state was trying to stop voting by requiring ID. Then the state said OK, we will give you FREE ID. Then the new buzz word came out and the press printing stories from the 50s and 60s about voter suppression. Those having nothing to do this law.
    I am sure this group had meetings about which word to use to get the press to jump on and which word would confuse the ill informed.
    So their biggest complaint now is the requirement will make people NOT want to vote. MLK got people to vote after being shot at, having crosses burned in their yard, churches blown up and so much more. Now this reverend allows his people to become disenfranchised by photo ID. Where have we come?……backward!

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