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.