When Louis Duke returned from summer break in 2012, he updated his voter registration from his parents’ address in Rockingham County to his new on-campus residence at Campbell University in Harnett County.
But when he tried to cast a ballot during early voting, a volunteer poll worker told him he was not registered. The source of the problem soon came to light: Across the state, local election boards use a mailing system to confirm that the new registrant is an actual voter. While Duke had provided the address of his apartment, he hadn’t signed up for a campus post-office box, describing it as an “unnecessary luxury.”
“This is not a generation that relies on mail,” he testified in federal court this week.
Duke eventually managed to straighten out his registration, returned to the polling place and cast his ballot on the last day of early voting.
However, if that bureaucratic snarl happened today, after most of the provisions of North Carolina’s new restrictive election law have gone into effect, Duke’s vote would not have been counted. The new law eliminated same-day registration, pushing the registration deadline back before the new, shortened 10-day early-voting period.
Duke was one of four witnesses who took the stand in federal court in Winston-Salem on Monday as a federal voting rights trial continued into a second week. Plaintiffs, including the North Carolina NAACP, the League of Women Voters and the U.S. Justice Department, are seeking to invalidate several restrictive provisions of the election law and obtain a legal order requiring the state to get federal preclearance for election changes through a little-used tool under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
From college students to working-class African Americans, many of the plaintiffs’ witnesses share two salient characteristics: They’re part of voting blocs that have historically proven to be unfriendly to Republican candidates, and their residential instability and transience makes them easy marks for new provisions that increase restrictions on voting.
Duke acknowledged during cross-examination that he experienced no difficulty registering or voting in the 2014 election. The defense has hit on some variation of the same theme during cross-examination of witnesses who have provided firsthand accounts of voting difficulties: Now that they know what they need to do, they should have no problem getting properly registered and voting in their assigned precinct.
Testimony by expert witnesses called by the plaintiffs complemented the accounts of hurdles encountered by ordinary voters at the polls.
Peter Levine, a professor at Tufts University, testified that North Carolina’s national ranking in turnout by voters ages 18 to 24 rose from 43rd in 2000 to eighth in 2012. But recently, youth voting strength has begun to wane.
“The state in a sense is becoming slightly younger,” Levine testified, “and yet youth have become a smaller share of the voters.”
Both the elimination of same-day registration and the curtailment of early voting days work against turnout of young voters, Levine said. While that cohort’s turnout between the mid-term elections of 2010 and 2014 remained essentially unchanged after the new election law went into effect, Levine testified that he would have expected a significant increase in turnout because of the “blockbuster” status of the 2014 election: There was unprecedented campaign spending and an intense U.S. Senate race.
Another expert witness, American University historian Allan Lichtman, told the court that voting strength among blacks and Latinos increased over the last decade as the General Assembly enacted reforms to expand access to the ballot box. However, every provision of the new election law passed since the Republicans took control of the Legislature in 2013 cuts against participation by those segments of the electorate.
The plaintiffs’ expert witnesses have supported their contention that the legislative intent of the new election was racially motivated. Steven Lawson, professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University, cited a June 17, 2013, email from then-state Sen. Thom Goolsby of Wilmington. The state Senate would “take a fresh look” at the pending election bill after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder, Goolsby said in the email, which was written 10 days before the high court’s decision.
The Supreme Court decision ultimately lifted federal preclearance requirements on several states, included North Carolina, that had been covered by the Voting Rights Act.
“Clearly the outcome of Shelby is on the mind,” Lawson testified, adding that if the case resolved favorably, lawmakers “were prepared to go full speed ahead” with the full slate of restrictive provisions that were ultimately added to the bill.
Lawyers for the state have argued in the defense’s trial brief that nothing in the new law “erects an actual barrier to voting.” Challenged provisions simply repeal or scale back “conveniences,” the defense argues.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they expect to rest their case on Thursday.
This article appeared in print with the headline “One man, no vote”