NEW YORK — Days after South Carolina confronted its past and lowered the Confederate battle flag on its State House grounds, North Carolina will grapple with its present-day rules that determine access to the voting booth.
A federal trial opening in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Monday is meant to determine whether recent, sweeping changes in the state’s election laws discriminate against black voters.
These changes were adopted by the Republican-dominated state Legislature in 2013, immediately after the US Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when it ended a requirement that nine states with histories of discrimination, including North Carolina, get federal approval before altering their election laws.
But the case, as well as one involving a Texas law requiring voters to show a photo ID, could have far wider repercussions, legal analysts say — helping to define the scope of voting rights protections across the country in next year’s presidential election and beyond.
The contested measures in North Carolina include reduced early voting days, an end to same-day registration, and an end to a program to preregister high school students.
They are a far cry from the violent intimidation and poll taxes of the Jim Crow era.
Still, few issues are more highly charged than voting rights in the old Confederate states, where the murder of civil rights workers and the brutal police attack on Alabama marchers galvanized Congress to pass the 1965 act, and the trial is fanning old emotions.
“This is our Selma,” William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, said of the election changes in the state. His group brought the lawsuit, alongside the League of Women Voters, a group of college students, and the Justice Department.
The Justice Department and other plaintiffs argue that the discriminatory effect was so clearly intentional that North Carolina should again be required to submit voting proposals for federal approval.
The state’s attorney general, Roy Cooper, responded in a pretrial brief that the plaintiffs are arguing for “the equivalent of election law affirmative action,” or for “practices that are favored by political organizations dedicated to maximizing Democratic turnout.”
North Carolina says the changes were made to ensure electoral integrity and reduce administrative burdens, and any effect on minorities is negligible and certainly not illegal.
Litigation over changes in voting rules, as opposed to the redrawing of voting districts, was uncommon before the Supreme Court blocked the federal preapproval requirement in Shelby County v. Holder; questionable changes were usually halted before they could take effect. Now, though, courts and civil rights groups have been forced to take a new look at the remaining provisions of the voting rights statute.
Like North Carolina, other states have recently revamped their election laws. Texas, for example, put in place a stringent photo ID law, the legality of which is under consideration by a federal appeals court.
But North Carolina lawmakers passed the broadest set of changes, trimming or eliminating measures that had been adopted over the previous 15 years expressly to bolster electoral participation by minority and younger voters.
In addition to cutting early voting days, to 10 from 17, lawmakers ended the ability to register and cast a vote on the same day, restored a 25-day wait, and abolished a preregistration program for 16- and 17-year-olds. The 2013 law also included a strict photo ID requirement, but it was recently softened and will not be considered in the trial.
US District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder may have to define the point at which such measures amount to unconstitutional discrimination under the Voting Rights Act, setting an important precedent on a topic that many legal experts think must eventually be resolved by the Supreme Court.
The plaintiffs in the case, North Carolina NAACP v. McCrory, say not only that the changes have an illegal discriminatory result, but also that they were devised to suppress black and Hispanic voting. They “fall with special force on North Carolina’s black citizens,” the Justice Department said in its brief, and “that unlawful result is no accident.”
If intent to discriminate is proved, the state will lose. But defining an illegal discriminatory effect is less settled.