WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Several expert witnesses have testified in what’s being considered a historic federal trial in Winston-Salem regarding voting rights in North Carolina.
The goal is to determine whether changes to the state’s election laws discriminate against minority voters, specifically black and Hispanic communities.
The Department of Justice, NAACP and other groups allege Republican leaders in the General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory intentionally reduced early voting days, ended same-day registration and the eliminated preregistration programs for high school students in order to discourage minority voters from the polls.
The state of North Carolina says those changes in 2013 were intended to strengthen the integrity of elections, reduce voter fraud and cut administrative costs and burdens.
The plaintiffs have now called multiple witnesses and experts to testify.
A 20-year-old from Greensboro, William Kittrell, testified Tuesday that he registered to vote in 2013 when he turned 18. He said he attempted to vote at the Brown Recreation Center in Greensboro during the early voting period. After waiting in line, he learned he was unable to vote because he was not in the system.
Kittrell said he was not offered a provisional ballot. He told the court, “I waited to vote basically all my life. I was disappointed and frustrated because my mom had always told me how important it was to vote.”
Expert witness Dr. Morgan Kousser
Dr. Morgan Kousser testified as an expert for the plaintiff Tuesday. Dr. Kousser works at Cal Tech and is an expert in Southern politics and voting rights.
Dr. Kousser looked at evidence such as hearings, transcripts of debates, newspaper articles, statistics, elections and depositions.
He said his analysis showed House Bill 589 did have or was likely to have and discriminatory effect, and that it was adopted by the legislature with discriminatory intent.
He said numbers from the state board of elections showed African Americans were more likely to lack a driver’s license, more likely to same-day register, and more likely to vote out of precinct. Dr. Kousser said this was all discussed in a legislative hearing therefore legislators knew the passage of the laws could have a disparate impact, but they passed it anyway. He added that legislators adopted the law in its strictest form and rejected all efforts to amend it, which contradicted legislative norms.
Dr. Kousser said he explored other possible explanations for the passage of the new voting laws, including the idea that the laws prevent voter fraud.
“From 2000 to 2013 there were only two cases prosecuted for voter fraud out of 21 million voters in North Carolina,” he told the court. “It’s unlikely that proven voter fraud is a legitimate explanation for adoption of the bill.”
In cross-examination, the state’s attorneys took issue with Dr. Kousser’s report relying partly on newspapers for quotations from legislators. Dr. Kousser said he cross-referenced and verified those reports when possible.
The state also questioned Dr. Kousser’s first-hand knowledge of voter fraud and how it’s investigated in North Carolina.
They pointed out the law was passed with less than a week left in the legislative session and wouldn’t have allowed much time for hearings and changes.
The state’s attorney’s asked if Dr. Kousser could point out one specific legislator who had discriminatory intent.
“No. I did not find any smoking guns. I wouldn’t expect to in a contemporary legislature… I was looking at the legislature as a whole.”
In an interview Monday with FOX8, Jay DeLancy with the Voter Integrity Project said there are more than a hundred cases of suspected voter fraud being investigated in the state from the last election.
He pointed out several elections in the state that were lost and won by only a few votes.
“They say- oh the numbers are so small. So tell me, how many stolen votes are acceptable? They say one disenfranchised vote is one too many. Ok, I agree with you actually. But how many stolen votes are one too many?”
Expert witness Dr. Lynne Vernon-Feagans
Part of testimony from Dr. Lynne Vernon-Feagans was played in court Tuesday. She works and researches at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
She highlighted research from her Family Life Project, a study of non-urban poverty. Her research has concluded that African Americans who are poor face greater barriers. African Americans who are poor, for example, had twice as much trouble getting a usable car than poor non-African Americans, their data showed.
Dr. Vernon-Feagans said they looked at data to pick out what might be day-to-day challenges for African Americans living in poverty trying to vote under provisions of HB 589.
The parts of daily living she discussed included literacy, access to a computer or internet, access to community services, and access to transportation or a usable car.
There were some problems with the videotape in court, but cross-examination resumed Wednesday.
The State’s attorneys pointed out that Dr. Vernon Feagans was not an election law or voting participation expert, and that the Family Life Project was not designed to study voting. Their data did not include voter registration information or voting habits.
So while she could pick out certain aspects of daily life that could prove challenging, they said, she could not say whether these factors actually prevented African American adults from voting.
Expert witness Dr. Charles Clodfelter
Dr. Charles Clodfelter is a Professor of Policy, Economics and Law at Duke University. He was asked to look at disparities in education resources between black and white students in North Carolina, gaps in achievement, and educational attainment.
His overall conclusions were that past and current disparities in educational resources affected North Carolina citizens. He said racial disparities still exist in school resources today. He said black children have a higher chance (7 percent) of getting a teacher with no experience compared to a white student (8 percent).
Dr. Clodfelter testified Tuesday that schools with the highest percentage of minority students have a higher percentage of: inexperienced teachers, teachers who scored lower on state tests, fewer teachers with national board certification, and fewer teachers who went to competitive schools.
In cross examination, the state’s attorneys pointed out that Dr. Clodfelter was not asked to connect education to a citizen’s ability to register to vote, comply with voting rules, or vote in the correct precinct.
Terrilin Cunningham testified Tuesday, saying she moved to North Carolina in 2012 to live with her adult daughter after losing her home and business because of financial struggles.
She now works three jobs, six days a week, reserving Sunday for church and family time.
Cunningham remembered voting on a Sunday after church in 2012 with no problem. “One of the things that started to heal me was being able to vote. It empowered me,” she told the court.
She said in the 2014 election she intended to vote early but was busy with her jobs and helping take care of a sick church member. She managed to stop by a polling place between obligations and was told she was in the wrong place. She filled out a provisional ballot and even posted a selfie on Facebook encouraging others to vote.
She later found out her provisional ballot did not count. “It causes me pain to feel like I did what I was supposed to do, similar to 2012, in my home county. I expected it count and when it didn’t I lost faith in North Carolina. I don’t understand why it was so great in 2012 and not in 2014.”
During cross-examination, the state’s attorneys asked Cunningham why she did not go to her assigned polling place or rearrange her schedule to do so.
Expert witness Dr. Kathryn Summers
The plaintiffs hired Dr. Kathryn Summers, an expert from Baltimore who specializes in low-literacy research and user research and design. Her work has focused on voting for four or five years, she said.
Dr. Summers concluded the provisions of HB 589 could significantly increase the burden for low-literacy voters and, disproportionately, low-literacy African American voters.
In a trial involving 20 subjects, she specifically explored how someone with basic or below-basic literacy skills might try to register to vote in North Carolina.
She testified Wednesday that it would be difficult for citizens with limited literacy skills to understand the changes in law, research those changes, apply them to their own lives, and figure out how to register and vote on the current state election website. She said 43 percent of the American population has basic or below-basic literacy.
During cross-examination, the state’s attorneys pointed out Dr. Summers could not give a specific percentage of how many people will be burdened by the new laws in North Carolina.
The Defendant’s team also pointed out that of Dr. Summer’s 20 subjects, 11 had photo ID’s and 8 had photo ID’s in the past but were lost or stolen at the time of the study. 19 of 20 were registered to vote in Maryland, where the study took place. 17 of 20 had voted in the last election. The state’s attorneys pointed out that despite low-literacy barriers, the majority of her test subjects had in reality figured out how to get an ID, register, and vote.
Expert witness Dr. Barry Burden
The NAACP presented Dr. Barry Burden as a witness Wednesday. He works at the University of Wisconsin with an expertise in political science and election research.
He was hired to evaluate the burdens of HB 589 on black and Latino voters.
Dr. Burden testified the law imposes new costs on voters in North Carolina and those costs are felt more heavily by black and Latino voters than white voters, therefore, it’s more likely to prevent black and Latino citizens from voting.
The costs he refers to include financial burdens such as transportation but also involve the investment of effort; extra work to learn the new voting process, register 25 days before the election, identify a new polling place, etc.
“HB 589 puts a double burden on black and Latino voters because the provisions it removes are disproportionately used by those groups. And those very groups have less resources to vote.”
During cross-examination, the state’s attorneys pointed out Dr. Burden did not study how many voters were deterred from voting because of the new law. They also said many other states do not have same-day voting or long early voting time periods.
The Defendants’ team reminded the court black voter turnout in 2014 increased after the law was enacted.
The NAACP argues that’s partly because their organization and others dramatically increased education and registration efforts when the new law passed.
Nadia Cohen from Cary, North Carolina testified Wednesday. The 18-year-old is Hispanic and just graduated from High School. She will attend UNC Chapel Hill for college.
Her testimony centered around the elimination of pre-registration programs in schools that used to allow 16 and 17 year olds to pre-register to vote.
Part of the plaintiff’s case argues the state eliminated these programs to target young voters and keep them from the polls.
Cohen said she was unaware of how and when to register and thought she could do so at school like her older brother did. But when it came time to vote in 2014, she was not registered in time.
“I was angry,” Cohen testified. “I assumed it would be as it’s always been.”
Mt. Holly witness
25-year-old Jessica Jackson testified Wednesday about her frustrating voting experience in 2014.
She tried to vote in person on an early voting Saturday. No one could find her voter registration in the system, so she filled out a provisional ballot. She later found out her vote did not count.
Eventually, Jackson said elections officials realized her registration was missing because it was accidentally merged with another woman with the same first, middle and last name in the same county.
The clerical error, the plaintiffs said, could have been rectified if Jackson had been able to re-register and vote on the same day.
Expert Dr. D. Sunshine Hillygus
The plaintiffs also hired Dr. Sunshine Hillygus from Duke University. She researches elections, campaigns, voting methods and civic engagements. She also focuses on youth civic engagement.
During her expert testimony Wednesday, Dr. Hillygus described her research that explored whether pre-registration was an effective policy to encourage more young people to vote.
In an all-state comparison of data, she explained, their research indicated youth turnout increased 13 percent in states with pre-registration laws.
Dr. Hillygus said she and her team were researching and working on publishing their findings before she was asked to testify in this lawsuit.
In Florida, she said youth who used pre-registration were 8 percent more likely to vote in the next election. She also said African Americans pre-registered at higher rates than the rest of the population.
About the trial
Judge Thomas Shroeder is presiding over the arguments. It is a bench trial so there is not a jury.
The courtroom was much less crowded Tuesday and Wednesday compared to Monday. The trial could last at least two to three weeks.
Continue following FOX8 for updates from the courtroom.