A trial over North Carolina’s voting laws opened in a federal courtroom here on Monday, with civil rights groups and the Justice Department arguing that the state had turned back the clock with sweeping changes to its election laws, while the state said the revisions applied equally to all and left its voting rules well within the national mainstream. “The history of North Carolina is not on trial here,” said Butch Bowers, a lawyer representing Gov. Pat McCrory, in an opening statement. “We will show that there is no discrimination, intentional or otherwise.” The plaintiffs in the case said the legislation, enacted in 2013, was deliberately drafted to reduce voting by African-Americans. They say the legacy of past racism in North Carolina, including the social and economic disparities between black and white citizens, is deeply relevant.
The contested measures reduced early voting days, ended same-day registration, ended out-of-precinct voting and halted the preregistration of 16- and 17-year-old high school students. These measures had been adopted in the past 15 years to increase voter participation and were disproportionately used by black, Hispanic and younger voters.
The Republican-dominated state legislature adopted the changes only weeks after the United States Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when it ended a requirement that election changes in North Carolina and eight other states with a history of racial discrimination in voting be preapproved by federal officials or courts.
The trial here could set an important precedent nationally, helping to define the scope of voter rights protections in a new era that lacks that federal preapproval requirement. North Carolina is one of several states that have recently altered voting procedures in ways that, civil rights groups have said, make voting harder for racial minorities, who on average are less affluent, less educated and more likely to move.