Coming of age in the Jim Crow South, Rosanell Eaton was one of the first African Americans to register to vote in her rural corner of North Carolina.
After riding for two hours to the county courthouse on a mule-drawn wagon, the granddaughter of a slave was forced to take a literacy test—reciting the preamble of the U.S. Constitution—before she could vote.
Seventy years later, the 94-year-old is at the center of a new struggle as the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit to overturn North Carolina’s voter identification law, which requires most voters to show an approved form of photo ID at the polls.
While supporters of the new law, which came into effect January, say it provides a bulwark against potential election fraud and is a minor administrative hassle that applies equally to all, critics contend that it disproportionately burdens African American and Latino voters, and that Republican legislators intentionally drafted it to obstruct minority voting.
The six-day trial wrapped up Monday, but U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder, an appointee of President George W. Bush, is not expected to hand down a verdict before voters go to the polls for the state's March 15 presidential primary.
The outcome is likely to affect upcoming elections in North Carolina, a Republican-dominated state where electoral results have been narrowly contested in recent years. It also offers a national test case for how federal courts will define voter rights protections after the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Shelby County vs. Holder, that struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
More than 30 states have passed laws requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls. In North Carolina, Republican legislators adopted one of the strictest laws in the nation just a month after the Shelby decision. The law not only mandates a government-issued photo ID, but shortened the time allowed for early voting, ended preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds, and eliminated same-day registration.
However, just before the law was due to be challenged in federal court in 2015, legislators abruptly loosened the voter ID requirement, allowing residents without government-issued photo ID to cast a provisional ballot if they filled out a form claiming a “reasonable impediment,” such as lack of proper documents, transportation problems, family obligations, work schedules, illness or disability.
The question is whether the new law, as modified, imposes a significant burden on minority voters. Attorneys representing the state NAACP argue that the “reasonable impediment” form is vague and that election officials have failed to educate the public on the amended photo ID requirement or offer clear guidelines and training to precinct officials and poll workers.
With only six weeks before the primary, many details remain unclear. For example, should voters check a box indicating they cannot provide photo ID because of “transportation problems” if they have access to a car once a week? What about if they live near public transportation? Or have a relative who has a car?
Such uncertainty, amid an official process that threatens criminal prosecution for making false statements, is intimidating, critics argue. “Having to sign the 'reasonable impediment' form produces real fear,” attorney Penda Hair told Judge Schroeder. “It's not just imaginary. And overcoming that fear is a burden.”
Eaton, who has voted in every election since the 1940s and helped to register more than 4,000 people to cast their own ballots, said the struggle to obtain ID is a hurdle that might prevent some from exercising their right to vote.
“It's going to be difficult, they may get discouraged, and they don't have the money to pay people to wait all day,” she testified in a videotaped deposition. “It's just a lot of headache in it.”
Throughout, critics of the new law have questioned why stringent photo identification requirements are needed at all: Voter fraud is exceedingly rare.
North Carolina officials made just two referrals of cases of voter impersonation fraud out of 35 million votes cast in primary and general federal elections between 2000 and 2014, according to Lorraine Minnite, an associate professor of public policy at Rutgers University who testified as an expert witness in the trial.
“Their claims of fraud were fraudulent in and of themselves,” the Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, said of the state’s case in a conference call Tuesday. “It’s a very smooth way of trying to continue to hold on to the 'solid South' through election and voter suppression and trickery.”
Those challenging the law contend that the lingering effects of centuries of racism in North Carolina, with African Americans and Latinos experiencing higher rates of poverty and lower rates of education and health, mean that each stage of the photo ID process imposes greater hardship on minority voters. Not only are they less likely to possess an official photo ID, but it is harder for them to obtain one.
In order to fulfill the photo ID requirement, Eaton said she had to drive more than 200 miles and make more than 10 trips to correct her identification because the name on her driver’s license, Rosanell Eaton, is not an exact match of the name on her voter registration card, Rosanell Johnson Eaton, a combination of her maiden and married names.
Attorneys for the state, however, argued that the state does not, in fact, require Eaton to correct the name on her identification.
According to instructions posted recently on the website of the state Board of Elections, the name appearing on the photo ID must be “the same or substantially equivalent” to the name on the voter's registration record. Acceptable differences include omission of one or more parts of the name, ordering of names and use of a former name, including maiden names.
Thomas A. Farr, a private attorney representing the state, argued in court that attorneys for the plaintiffs had engaged in “sheer speculation” without demonstrating that the new law would have a disproportionate impact on turnout results based upon race.
“Where is the evidence of any voter who's been intimidated from voting for any reason that's been put on during the course of this case?” he asked the judge.
As more states tighten voting laws, legal experts say that both sides often face challenges in coming up with adequate evidence.
“On the state side, the reason that they can’t come up with evidence of voter fraud is that’s not the real motivation for these laws,” said Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at UC Irvine, who specializes in election law.
In general, Hasen said, “the real motivation is to make it harder for those likely to vote Democrat to vote. The reason plaintiffs have trouble is because there do not appear to be a huge number of people who lack ID, can’t get the ID and actually want to vote.”
Jarvie is a special correspondent.