This week, North Carolina's governor signed a new law requiring a state-approved photo ID to cast a vote in a polling place and shortening the period for early voting. The move comes just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which had required large parts of the state to get federal approval before changing voting laws.
Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, says the new law will protect the state from voter fraud. Critics say it reverses crucial reforms designed to help protect the rights of African-Americans, young people and the poor.
NPR's Ailsa Chang visited rural areas of North Carolina to report on how the changes could affect poor minority voters who live there.
Sometimes you can tell how hard voting can be just by looking at a place. Drive through a rural pocket of northeastern North Carolina called Bertie County, and all you'll see for miles and miles are tobacco and soybean fields.
You'll see large families crammed into small trailer homes propped up on cinder blocks.
And you'll notice that many of those homes have no car sitting outside.
"Many of these persons don't have cars. They can't afford automobiles," says the Rev. Vonner Horton, driving along the roads in her car. She's the pastor at New Oxley Hill Baptist Church in Merry Hill, N.C.
For years, Horton and her church have used the state's early-voting system to make sure as many people as possible could vote. They send vans across the county, door to door, to pick people up and take them to polls. But they're always short on time.
Do the math, Horton says. One church van holds about 10 people. Gathering them up can take more than an hour. Then you have to drive to different polling places, long distances apart. Repeat all of this a few more times in one day, and you've only got 50 ballots in the box. And this new law has now cut early voting from 17 days down to 10.
"Losing that week is also going to put challenges on us on how we're going to move across a county that's two hours wide to get people to voting polls," says Horton.
Driving across the county probably doesn't actually take two hours, but driving around it — from home to home — could easily eat up a couple of hours.
There's a big demand to vote early in Bertie County. Last year, almost 6,000 people did it — more than half of all voters here, according to an analysis of State Board of Elections data conducted by Democracy North Carolina, a voting rights advocacy group.
And even if all those voters do get back to polling places again, there's another hurdle with the new voting law: You need a government-issued photo ID to vote in person.
No Photo ID
A lot of residents are applauding this new rule requiring picture IDs, such as Mac Lawrence. He's supervising big machines cropping leaves in his tobacco field.
"I think there's a lot of folks voting in more than one place. If you can't prove who you are, then you ought not be able to vote," Lawrence says.
Actually, evidence of voter fraud in North Carolina is pretty minimal. The State Board of Elections has reported only two cases of voter impersonation fraud in the past 10 years.
Still, Lawrence says presenting an ID is hardly a burden.
"I don't know a person in Bertie County who doesn't have an ID card of some type or another," he says.
But what do the data suggest? More than 300,000 registered voters in North Carolina could lack either a driver's license or a state ID, according to records from the State Board of Elections. And in Bertie County, almost 10 percent of all voters fall into that category, according to an analysis by Democracy North Carolina. Most of them are poor African-Americans.
Many residents in Bertie County possess photo identification for food stamps, but that ID doesn't qualify under the new law. Supporters of the legislation say even if you don't have a valid photo ID, you can still vote absentee. But you need two witnesses to sign your ballot. And you have to fill out a county elections form.
That might not sound like a big deal, but Horton says that can be a real obstacle for poor people. You're talking about voters who don't have Internet access in their homes, who will need hand-holding to get a ballot.
She remembers after a tornado hit two years ago: "We had people from the storm — these same seniors — that had damages and all, and could apply for FEMA. But because they could not read or write, they didn't want to be bothered with the application process," Horton says.
So Horton says she expects a lot of people just won't bother to vote absentee, and they certainly won't bother applying for a North Carolina state ID just to vote — so they might never cast a ballot again.
Voting Reforms Undone
Voting rights advocates have worked more than 10 years fighting for reforms — such as longer early-voting periods, same-day registration, and preregistration of 17-year-olds.
All of that vanished this week.
Bob Phillips of Common Cause says he finds it astonishing how far backward, in his view, North Carolina has gone with this new law.
"It's interesting how in 2008, we led the country in having the largest percentage increase in voter turnout," says Phillips. "Interesting that when we have a record turnout — a record turnout of young people, a record turnout of African-Americans, suddenly we are passing laws that are hitting harder those populations. Why is that?"
Supporters of the new law, like Republican State Sen. Bob Rucho, say such talk is nothing more than what he calls "liberal rhetoric" from people who don't care about voter fraud. "When changes are made, and people are so adamantly opposed to those changes, in my judgment, they're trying to hide something," says Rucho. "Or they're having something taken away from them, in essence, that may allow them to cheat."
These accusations gives some voters in North Carolina the unsettling feeling that history is repeating itself.
Telling Alberta Currie, 78, who says she's the great-granddaughter of a slave, that she's no longer welcome at a polling place takes her back to an ugly time in North Carolina — a time she thought had disappeared. She remembers voting in 1956 in Robeson County, right when she became eligible to vote. Because she was black, she had to spend all day at the polling place.
"The white people went ahead of us," says Currie. "That meant the black people be last. And if we got home at dusk-dark, we was home at dusk-dark. We weren't home at light."
That was when literacy tests were in place in North Carolina. Currie remembers being interviewed by white officials before she could cast her ballot.
"Why you want to vote, whose farm you lived on ... what kind of work did you do, or farming did you do, where your kids went to school at. They had to know your whole life story," recalls Currie.
Currie has consistently voted at polling places ever since that first time, but now, she won't be able to. She can't get a state photo ID without a birth certificate. She doesn't have a birth certificate because she was born on a farm, with a midwife.
Currie says she's endured plenty of racism in her rural corner of the South. Like the time she was hired to clean a high school, and white students splashed cans of urine on her when she walked home from work. The new voting law in North Carolina means Currie will now have to vote absentee. But she says that's not really voting. You need to show up in person to vote with dignity.
"I want to see my vote counted. Let me be there. I wanna be there. I want to see that," says Currie.
Currie has joined a lawsuit against the state hoping to stop the new law from going into effect. Because, she says, missing a day at the polling place is like missing church. It's as if there's an empty spot inside yourself that you feel all day long.
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