Voting rights trial in North Carolina begins: 'This is our Selma'

Lawyers in North Carolina sparred over whether the state illegally weakened minorities’ strength at the polls during what is expected to become a significant test of the voting rights laws.

The proceedings, which began in a Winston-Salem federal courtroom Monday, are expected to last several weeks.

North Carolina argues that the changes were needed to protect the voting process from fraud. Civil rights activists, with the support of the U.S. Department of Justice, maintain that the law was designed to dilute the power of African Americans and Latinos in the GOP-controlled state.

The case is one of several coming after a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidated provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act that gave the Department of Justice final say over voting in areas with histories of racial discrimination. The 1965 law was considered a civil rights landmark by helping to ensure minority participation in a political process controlled by the white ruling structure that had evolved from legal segregation in the South.

After the high court’s ruling, North Carolina passed laws that included  tightening photo identification requirements and restricting early voting and same-day registration. Another provision eliminated a program that allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister so they would be automatically registered to vote at 18.

Other states also have recently revamped their election laws. Texas enacted a tough photo identification law that is now being considered by a federal appeals court.

But the North Carolina laws are considered the broadest because they modify measures that had been adopted over the previous 15 years expressly to bolster electoral participation by minority and younger voters.

The plaintiffs believe the trial “will have a lasting and decisive impact on the voting rights of African Americans and Latinos in North Carolina, and an impact on the Voting Rights Act itself,” Penda Hair, a lawyer representing the NAACP, said in court, according to the Associated Press.

“That is why they say about this case: 'This is our Selma,’” she said, using the comparison that civil rights leaders have made to the 1965 confrontation between civil rights marchers and police in Alabama. 

But Tom Farr, a private attorney representing North Carolina, told the court that many of the restrictions exist in other states as well.

“What is the dastardly thing that North Carolina has done that has been equated to the events in Selma?” Farr asked, according to the AP. He argued that black turnout increased in the 2014 election — when some provisions were implemented — compared with four years earlier.

“I think it's hard to say that's purposeful discrimination,” he said.

There has been an ongoing battle between loosening and restricting voting rights in recent years. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU Law School, state legislatures around the country are considering 464 bills to expand access and 113 bills to restrict it.

The expansion includes actions such as automatic voting registration based on previous actions with government, such as obtaining a driver’s license. Another growth area is online voting registration.

But it is the restrictions that have raised the most questions because already-registered voters would be taken off the rolls.

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