DURHAM, NC — Rosanell Johnson Eaton, a 92-year-old Franklin County resident, listened with rapt attention Tuesday as lawyers and the head of the state NAACP outlined their legal challenge of the sweeping revisions to North Carolina’s voting procedures.
The day before, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory had signed the GOP-designed revisions into law, and the stroke of his pen set off a flourish of lawsuits.
The new law requires voters to show government-issued ID cards, shortens early voting by a week, ends same-day registration and increases the number of poll observers who can challenge a voter’s eligibility. The law also ends straight-ticket voting and eliminates preregistration initiatives for high school students.
McCrory said Monday in a YouTube statement that the new law would safeguard the election process. “Protecting the integrity of every vote cast is among the most important duties I have as governor,” he said. “It’s why I signed these common-sense commonplace protections into law.”
Eaton, who has lived in Louisburg her entire life–within seven miles of her birthplace, was one of the first blacks registered to vote in the 1940s in Franklin County. To be eligible to cast a ballot, she had to recite the U.S. Constitution preamble to three county registrars as part of a required literacy test.
Now she’s preparing for another voting test as a lead plaintiff in one of the legal challenges of the new elections law.
A proponent of early voting who has spent years helping others get to the polls, Eaton claims that provisions of the new law are too restrictive and will hinder her ability to vote. She has a North Carolina driver’s license, but she fears that the name on it may not match the name on her certified birth certificate. That’s because she was born at home and a midwife inaccurately wrote her name on her birth certificate, she said.
In the lawsuit filed in federal court Monday, she contended the new law will force her to “incur substantial time and expense” to correct her identification documents.
“What this is doing is setting back the country,” Eaton said. “I don’t think people should be doing things like that.”
As the plaintiffs in the lawsuits filed in federal and state court explained their challenges of the new elections law, advocates of IDs and other revisions worked to bolster their cases.
J. Christian Adams, a former U.S. Justice Department lawyer, issued a statement Tuesday that was critical of the NAACP and ACLU, organizations behind two of the lawsuits.
“Groups like the NAACP and ACLU have consistently opposed every election integrity measure, and have even opposed any compromises,” said Adams, who was hired during the Bush administration but resigned in 2010 after accusing the Obama administration of having a racial agenda. “They have had long-standing problems even finding plaintiffs who are unable to obtain the free voter identification. This lawsuit is about the politics of the 2014 election, not civil rights. They are trying to mobilize their political base by dishonestly scaring Americans into thinking these new laws to fight voter fraud will impact law-abiding Americans.”
Others have accused the Republicans who pushed for the changes as the fear mongers. They argued the bill had more to do with limiting votes cast than protecting a process that has yielded little documented evidence of voter fraud.
The Rev. William Barber II, head of the state NAACP, looked into the bank of TV cameras trained on the podium at Tuesday’s news conference. With the same fiery oratory he used during the weekly “Moral Monday” demonstrations this summer, Barber described the governor’s decision to sign the law as “a vulgar misuse of power.”
“This bill is not about Voter ID,” Barber said. “Our complaint and lawsuit will show how this bill revisits the tactics of Jim Crow in the 21st century. These tactics have a disproportionate and discriminatory impact on African-Americans and other minorities. It is about race, an outright attempt to manipulate elections by suppressing voting.”
Blacks are 23 percent of registered voters in North Carolina, but made up 29 percent of early voters in 2012, 30 percent of those who cast out-of-precinct ballots, 34 percent of the 318,000 registered voters without state-issued ID and 41 percent of those who used same-day registration.
The attorneys contended on Tuesday that “race was a motivating factor” in enacting the laws. They argued that legislators adopted the revisions “with knowledge and intent that such actions would affect African-American voters disproportionately.”
Carolyn Q. Coleman, a Guilford County commissioner who served as a special assistant to former Gov. Jim Hunt, said she was distressed by part of McCrory’s YouTube statement in which he said: “Common practices like boarding an airplane and purchasing Sudafed require photo ID, and we should expect nothing less for the protection of our right to vote.”
“If he doesn’t see the difference in these, then North Carolina is really in trouble,” Coleman said.
A separate lawsuit brought by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and the ACLU on behalf of the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and the A. Philip Randolph Institute also alleges that the elimination of same-day registration, the cuts to early voting and the ban on out-of-precinct provisional ballots violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Acts and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because of their disparate racial impact. The Southern Coalition for Social Justice filed a lawsuit on Tuesday in state court, contending that setting new voter qualifications ran counter to provisions in the North Carolina Constitution.
With critics of the law lining up a multi-prong legal challenge, U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urging him to review the changes.
“All American citizens deserve an equal opportunity to participate in the democratic process, and North Carolina has long been a leader in the expansion of voting rights and elimination of barriers to participation in the political process,” Hagan said in a statement.