WINSTON-SALEM, NC – On the second day of a preliminary injunction hearing to halt North Carolina’s voter suppression law (H.B. 589), U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder and the court heard testimony from witnesses representing the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and allies demonstrating how the law violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the 14th and 15th Amendments of the Constitution.
“This case is fueled by the stories of those who have dedicated their lives to making our democracy more equal,” said Advancement Project Co-Director Penda D. Hair on Tuesday. “These are the public servants who have come before us, and those who stand up today-demanding an America more committed to its promise of equality. North Carolina set a standard of voter suppression in passing H.B. 589, but the advocates we will hear from in this case set a higher standard of resilience in their fight for a fair and open democracy.”
Among the plaintiffs to testifying were 93-year-old Rosanell Eaton. Born in Franklin County, North Carolina, the granddaughter of a slave, Eaton has been an active member of the NAACP for 65 years. Taking the stand in front of the court and a captivated courtroom, Eaton recalled her first experience registering to vote at age 19 during the Jim Crow era. After riding in a wagon on a dirt road, Eaton arrived at the polling site where she was confronted by three men who demanded she stand upright, look straight ahead at the wall in front of her, and recite – without error – the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. It was only upon flawlessly completing this literacy test that she was granted the right to register to vote.
Recalling her decades of work as a poll observer, worker, assistant, and eventually as a poll judge, Ms. Eaton estimated that she had assisted between 4,000 and 5,000 people register to vote before she ultimately stopped counting. “My forefathers didn’t have the opportunity to register or vote,” Eaton explained. “It is my intention to help people reach that point when they could do something.”
Ms. Eaton could be prevented from voting under the photo identification provisions of H.B. 589 that will go into effect in 2016 – the names on her driver’s license and voter registration card do not match – yet her concerns with the bill extend to other elements of the legislation as well. “It is so important that people have the time to vote,” Eaton said, raising concern about the provisions that slash a week from early voting and undermine same-day registration and use of provisional ballots. “Voting should be free and accessible to everyone.”
Other witnesses provided insights into the discriminatory intent and impact of H.B. 589. State Representative Rick Glazier testified that the law dealt “fundamentally with the most important part of democracy,” and yet the events leading up to the passage of the bill were truncated and non-transparent, leaving little time for public notice or understanding.
“Bar none, it was the worst legislative process I’ve ever been through,” said Glazier. In the two-hour legislative session preceding the final House vote on the bill, he recounted that for the first time in his legislative career and recent state history, every member of the minority party asked to speak against the legislation. No majority members beyond the bill’s sponsor made a comment for the record, though the bill passed with majority support.
Rev. Jimmy R. Hawkins, Senior Pastor of Convenient Presbyterian Church in Durham, a plaintiff in the case, has played an active role in voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, including “Souls to the Polls” organizing to provide transportation for congregation members to early Sunday voting locations. H.B. 589, however, truncates early voting and eliminates Sundays from the allotted days. For African-American voters, voting is “not just a political activity; it’s personal,” Hawkins said, recounting having to sit up in the balcony in his town’s segregated movie theater well into the 1970’s.
Former State Board of Elections Director Gary Bartlett testified to the success of measures like early voting and same-day registration on expanding access to voting. He testified that reducing early voting will increase costs for local election officials, and that that same-day registration had higher rates of verifiability than other means of registering.
Photo: Rosanell Eaton testifies in court. Southernstudies.org