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.