Days after South Carolina confronted its past and lowered the Confederate battle flag, North Carolina will grapple with its present-day rules that determine access to the voting booth. A federal trial opening in Winston-Salem on Monday is meant to determine whether recent, sweeping changes in the state’s election laws discriminate against black voters. These changes were adopted by the Republican-dominated state legislature in 2013, immediately after the United States Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when it ended a requirement that nine states with histories of discrimination, including North Carolina, get federal approval before altering their election laws. But the case, as well as one involving a Texas law requiring voters to show a photo ID, could have far wider repercussions, legal experts say — helping to define the scope of voting rights protections across the country in the coming presidential election and beyond.
The contested measures in North Carolina include reduced early voting days, an end to same-day registration and an end to a program to preregister high school students. They are a far cry from the violent intimidation and poll taxes of the Jim Crow era. Still, few issues are more highly charged than voting rights in the old Confederate states, where the murder of civil rights workers and the brutal police attack on Alabama marchers galvanized Congress to pass the 1965 act, and the trial is fanning old emotions.
“This is our Selma,” said William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina N.A.A.C.P., of the election changes in the state. His group brought the lawsuit, alongside the League of Women Voters, a group of college students and the Department of Justice.
The Justice Department and other plaintiffs argue that the discriminatory effect was so clearly intentional that North Carolina should again be required to submit voting proposals for federal approval.