In what has become ground zero in the national fight against voter suppression, thousands were expected to protest outside a federal courthouse in North Carolina on Monday marking the outset of a landmark trial which will determine if Republican-backed changes made to state voting laws discriminate against minority voters.
"This is our Selma," proclaimed Dr. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP which, along with the Advancement Project and the U.S. Department of Justice, launched the suit against the state.
In the two years since the U.S. Supreme Court voted to remove key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, North Carolina's GOP-dominated legislature has led other states in passing a slew of new voting restrictions. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, in the past five years, 21 states have put in place new voting restrictions .
The North Carolina Voter Information and Verification Act of 2013 includes measures such as cutting same-day registration, restricting early voting and registration, and mandating new hurdles for obtaining photo IDs—each of which, Barber notes, disproportionately impacts the state's minority voters.
"North Carolina is the test case for the national anti-democracy forces who desperately seek to constrict the new, multi-cultural, southern electorate," wrote Barber, who is the leader of the Moral Monday protest movement, in an op-ed ahead of the trial opening.
After its passage, law expert Richard Hasen described the legislation as "the most sweeping anti-voter law in at least decades."
As the state government faces off against voting rights advocates, tens of thousands of protesters are expected to march outside the Winston-Salem federal courthouse on Monday evening. The demonstration, which is set to start at 5 PM EDT, will begin and end at Corpening Plaza, two blocks from the U.S. District Courthouse.
On Sunday evening, 1,200 people packed a Winston-Salem church service to hear faith leaders galvanize the movement.
News and images from Monday's protest will be shared online with the hashtags #ThisIsOurSelma or #VotingRights.
Observers say that the trial may have broad repercussions, potentially for the upcoming presidential election, setting the stage for how voting protections are interpreted since the Supreme Court removed the pre-clearance requirement for new voting laws in states with a history of racial discrimination.
"Tens of thousands of [North Carolina] voters could be impacted by its outcome in a state that backed Barack Obama in 2008 but opted for his opponent Mitt Romney four years later, both on the slightest of margins," notes Guardian reporter Ed Pilkington.
"North Carolina may be the state with the worst anti-voter laws on its books today, but these voter suppression tricks have been exported to one southern state after another, with a confederate flag brazenness," Barber added.
According to the New York Times, the plaintiffs in NC NAACP v. McCrory will attempt to illustrate the broader discriminatory impact of the new laws and argue that such effects were deliberate. The Times reports:
Of particular interest will be the effort to prove that North Carolina legislators acted intentionally to curb black voting, and the related request by federal officials and the civil rights groups to restore a preapproval requirement for election law changes in North Carolina, under a rarely invoked provision of the Voting Rights Act.
The Justice Department is seeking similar restorations of federal oversight, known as “bail-ins,” in two Texas cases, involving its redistricting plan and its photo ID law.
Proving intentional racial discrimination is difficult, said Justin Levitt, an expert in election law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “That doesn’t mean that they have to prove animus or hatred,” he said in an email, “but they will have to prove that the law was put in place because of (and not merely despite) its impact on minorities.”
If the plaintiffs do establish intentionality, Mr. Levitt said, it will be up to the judge to decide whether reimposing federal preclearance is warranted.
The trial comes just weeks before the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson made law after the bloody Selma to Montgomery March for voting rights.
"This is a fight we thought we had won 50 years ago," said the Advancement Project's Donita Judge, who is representing the NAACP chapter at trial. "What happens here will impact so many other states in the south."