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How accusations of disenfranchisement fit into NC voting trial

Moses and Georgette Colbert
Moses and Georgette Colbert WFAE

As the federal trial over North Carolina’s election overhaul continues in Winston-Salem this week, one word has come up over and over again: disenfranchised. The Department of Justice, the state NAACP and others contend the changes disenfranchised some African-Americans in 2014.

Lawyers suing North Carolina have called more than a dozen witnesses to testify about how they were deprived of their right to vote.

The Rev. Moses Colbert from Cleveland County was one of them. The 60-year-old African-American went to vote early during last year’s midterm election.

“I got to the polling place, oh, guess what, you can’t vote here because you’re registered in Gaston County. Really? OK, well I’ll go back and vote in Gaston County,” Colbert says. “Get to Gaston County, Gaston County says you can’t vote here because your license says Cleveland County. OK, so what’s going on here?”

Colbert was stuck in a bureaucratic no man’s land. When he moved from Gaston to Clevelandabout a year earlier, he and his new wife, Georgette, went to the DMV to update their information, including their voter registrations. Turns out, it worked for her but not him.

It kind of seems like as long as the whites can stay ahead with the rule, it’s OK. But just as soon as they begin to benefit the black man, it’s all this chaos and confusion.

Georgette Colbert

Georgette remembers how frustrated they were.

“I thought it was really crazy because we went through everything that we were supposed to go through,” she says.

After driving from Cleveland to Gaston and back, Moses was finally given a provisional ballot. But state records show his vote did not count.

North Carolina used to offer same-day registration, which would’ve solved all this for Colbert. But state lawmakers eliminated that as part of their 2013 overhaul. They also shortened the early voting period, got rid out-of-precinct voting and created a voter ID requirement, although ID is not part of the current trial.

An attorney representing the League of Women Voters, Allison Riggs, says there are thousands of stories similar to Colbert’s.

“They got disenfranchised because we didn’t have the fail-safe in place,” she says.

Attorneys representing the state declined our interview requests. In court, they’ve pointed out that the fail-safe provisions North Carolina eliminated don’t exist in many other states. Does that mean voters in Virginia and South Carolina, as two examples, are disenfranchised?

When it comes to specific stories, North Carolina’s attorneys have said the changes apply equally to everyone. They also point out some of the witnesses just didn’t know the rules, such as a young man from Greensboro who didn’t re-register when he moved, and an elderly woman from Goldsboro who showed up at the wrong precinct.

Here’s Georgette Colbert’s response to that argument: “It kind of seems like as long as the whites can stay ahead with the rule, it’s OK,” she says. “But just as soon as they begin to benefit the black man, it’s all this chaos and confusion. And it seems like the more we try to get ahead, the more we’re pushed back.”

African-American voter registration and turnout had surged under the voting provisions that lawmakers took away or curtailed.

That helps to explain why she and her husband both believe he was disenfranchised. But the reason they use that word is also tied to history. Moses Colbert says it’s about who he is and where he came from.

“You’ve got to understand, I grew up during the era when they had whites-only bathrooms, whites-only fountains,” he says. “I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s. I witnessed a lot of atrocities. I’ve seen a lot of people get hurt, so do I need to exercise my right to vote, yeah. Voting is so important.”

In court, the state’s attorneys have said everyone looks back on that history with disgust. But they say that history is not on trial.

Federal Judge Thomas Schroeder will hear more from both sides this week and next before deciding whether any or all of the changes disenfranchised some voters.

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