In 1942, the 21-year-old Eaton took a two-hour mule ride to the Franklin County courthouse in eastern North Carolina to register to vote. The three white male registrars told her to stand up straight, with her arms at her side, look straight ahead and recite the preamble to the Constitution from memory. After she did that word for word, they gave her a written literacy test, which she also passed. Eaton was one of the few blacks to pass a literacy test and make it on the voting rolls in the Jim Crow era.
A granddaughter of a slave, she became a lifelong voting-rights activist, personally registering 4,000 new voters before losing count. But in 2013, after voting for 70 years, she became a casualty of North Carolina’s new voter-ID law, which goes into effect this year, because the name on her voter-registration card (Rosanell Eaton) did not match the name on her driver’s license (Rosa Johnson Eaton).
Beginning in January 2015, Eaton undertook a herculean effort to match her various documents and comply with the law. Over the course of a month, she made 11 trips to different state agencies—four trips to the DMV, four trips to two different Social Security offices, and three trips to different banks—totaling more than 200 miles and 20 hours. “It was really stressful and difficult, [a] headache and expensive, everything you could name,” she said.
Not everyone will have Eaton’s persistence, resources, and stamina to comply with the law. More than 300,000 North Carolinians lack a government-issued ID, with African Americans twice as likely as whites not to have one.
The North Carolina legislature passed one of the toughest voter-ID laws in July 2013—a month after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act—along with a multitude of new restrictions, including cutting early voting, eliminating same-day registration, and ending preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds. Then, just three weeks before a federal court heard a challenge to the law in July 2015, the legislature unexpectedly softened the voter-ID requirement. Those without government-issued photo ID could still vote if they proved there was a “reasonable impediment” to possessing or obtaining the strict voter ID.