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This week, North Carolina adopted new rules for elections. The state now requires a photo ID to vote and early voting will be shortened by one week. Those measures come on the heels of the Supreme Court's ruling that invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Critics say the new rules reversed crucial reforms. Those reforms, they say, helped to protect the rights of African-Americans, young people and the poor. NPR's Ailsa Chang went to North Carolina to explore the new law's possible effects.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: 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 see not many of those homes have cars sitting outside.
REVEREND VONNER HORTON: Many of these persons don't have cars. They can't afford automobiles.
CHANG: So years ago, Reverend Vonner Horton and her church used the early voting system to make sure as many people as possible could vote. Here's what they do: They send vans across the county, door to door, to pick people up and take them to the polls. But they're always short on time. Do the math, she says. One church van holds about 10 people. Gathering them up can take more than an hour. Then you got 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 to 10.
HORTON: 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.
CHANG: There's a big demand to vote early in Bertie County. Last year, about 6,000 people did it, more than half of all voters here. And even if all those voters did get back to polling places again, there's another hurdle with the new rules: You need a government-issued photo ID to vote in person.
A lot of residents applaud this new rule requiring picture IDs, like Mac Lawrence. He's supervising big machines cropping leaves in his tobacco field.
MAC LAWRENCE: 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.
CHANG: 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 last 10 years. Still, Lawrence says, presenting an ID is hardly a burden.
LAWRENCE: I don't know a person in Bertie County that doesn't have an ID card of some type or another.
CHANG: Well, more than 300,000 registered voters in North Carolina lack either a driver's license or a state ID. That's what records from the State Board of Elections show. And in Bertie County, according to a voting rights group, almost 10 percent of all voters fall into that category, most of them poor African-Americans. I met some of them at a local church.
TERESA VALENTINE: My name is Teresa Valentine.
CHANG: And, Teresa, do you have a state ID or a driver's license?
VALENTINE: No, no.
SUDIE SUTTON: My name is Sudie Sutton. I don't have a driving license or a state ID card.
CHANG: Then I caught Eddie Winborne pulling weeds outside his trailer home. He let his driver's license expire when he was in his 40s. Now, he's thumbing through his wallet to look for some other ID.
EDDIE WINBORNE: Got one of them.
CHANG: Well, that's your Medicare card.
CHANG: Anything with your picture on it?
WINBORNE: No, don't have nothing else with my picture on it.
CHANG: Many residents showed me 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 Reverend 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 a large tornado that hit two years ago.
HORTON: 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.
CHANG: 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 rights advocates have worked more than 10 years fighting for reforms like longer early voting periods, same-day registration and pre-registration of 17-year-olds. All of that vanished this week. Bob Phillips of Common Cause says he finds it astonishing how far backwards North Carolina has gone with this new law.
BOB PHILLIPS: It's interesting how in 2008, we led the country in having the largest percentage increase in voter turnout. 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?
CHANG: Supporters of the legislation, like Republican State Senator Bob Rucho, say such talk is nothing more than what he calls liberal rhetoric from people who don't care about voter fraud.
SENATOR BOB RUCHO: When changes are made, and people are so adamantly opposed to those changes, in my judgment, they're trying to hide something or they're trying - they're having something taken away from them, in essence, that may allow them to cheat.
CHANG: These accusations, this kind of suspicion gives some voters in North Carolina the unsettling feeling that history is repeating itself. Telling Alberta Currie, the great-granddaughter of a slave, that she is 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.
ALBERTA CURRIE: The white people went ahead of us. That meant the black people would be last. And if we got home at dusk-dark, we was home at dusk-dark. We weren't home at light.
CHANG: 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 one because she was born with a midwife on a farm. 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 Alberta 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.
CURRIE: I want to see my vote counted. Let me be there. I want to be there. I want to see that.
CHANG: 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 you feel all day long. Ailsa Chang, NPR News.
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