Part III in an ongoing series on efforts to reverse voting rights in this country.
In the Republican-led movement to reverse the democratic gains of minorities and other targeted communities across the United States, North Carolina is ground zero.
After 150 years of taking a back seat in the Tar Heel state, the GOP gained veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the state house as well as the governorship, and quickly moved to secure their position by passing the most severe voter suppression laws in the nation—citizens’ rights be damned.
Those lawmakers were empowered by the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision that gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act—the provision that required states with a history of discrimination, like North Carolina, to obtain federal approval before making changes to election law.
“We’re seeing an avalanche of suppressive laws from states all over the country but mostly from states that were covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act,” said Julie Ebenstein, attorney, ACLU Voting Rights Project.
Fifteen of those previously covered states have passed repressive laws since the Supreme Court’s June 2013 decision, Ebenstein said. But, North Carolina’s Voter Information Verification Act, which was hurriedly rammed through the General Assembly, ranks as “one of the more comprehensively suppressive laws.”
Republicans seemingly piled on every vote-suppressing tactic they could think of into the 56-page HB 589: it includes a restrictive photo ID law, which excludes college IDs and goes into effect in 2016; cuts early voting period to 10 days;
eliminates Sunday voting; eliminates same-day registration; discards pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, who currently can register to vote before they turn 18; outlaws paid registration drives; jettisons provisional ballots cast in
the wrong precinct; abolishes straight-ticket voting; prohibits counties from extending voting hours on Election Day, due to extraordinary circumstances, such as long lines; changes the procedure for obtaining absentee ballots; allows more people, including partisan poll observers, to challenge a voter’s right to
vote; and much more.
Almost immediately, the law was challenged by the Department of Justice, the ACLU, the NAACP and their partners, who lodged complaints alleging the law discriminated against African Americans and abrogated their constitutional
rights—more than one-third of North Carolinians who lack an approved photo ID are Black; more than 70 percent of Black voters in the state took advantage of early voting opportunities; 34 percent of same-day registrants were Black voters, and the list of disproportionate effects goes on. The ACLU’s Ebenstein said they have filed a request for an emergency injunction to halt the implementation of the law before the 2014 General Elections.
As usual, Republicans trotted out the old excuse about combatting voter fraud and increasing elections integrity— though experts showed that of the more than 21 million votes cast in the state in the past 12 years, only one case of voter impersonation was found.
But, the truth will out, and Don Yelton, former precinct chairman of the Buncombe County Republican Party, revealed the legislation’s true intentions in an Oct. 24 appearance on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”
“The law is going to kick the Democrats in the butt,” Yelton said. “If it hurts a bunch of college kids that are too lazy to get up off of their [behinds] and get a photo ID, so be it. If it hurts the Whites, so be it. If it hurts a bunch of lazy Blacks that want to have the government give them everything, so be it.”
Such blatant disregard for the disenfranchisement of African Americans, the young, the poor and other targeted groups has been met by a groundswell of community-led protest, in addition to litigation.
“Of all the horrors that have come from the Shelby decision, one positive outcome is the level of concern and awareness among activists, but also among everyday people who realize it should not be made more difficult to vote,” Ebenstein said.
Ellie Kinnaird decided to resign as a state senator after a
17-year tenure to launch a grassroots project, NC Voter, to fight against the laws that were whittling away voters’ rights and undoing many of the progressive measures she has fought to enact.
“To watch 17 years of my work just being destroyed was very disturbing to me,” the former lawmaker told the AFRO. “I was so discouraged and weary of fighting a losing battle.”
Kinnaird joined forces with the Forward Together Moral Movement, a broad, multiracial coalition movement led by the North Carolina NAACP, which has dedicated itself to fighting the suppressive election laws and other harmful legislation through nonviolent protest, litigation, voter engagement and education and other means. One of those tools is the Moral Monday movement, a series of protests that began when a few activists were arrested outside the North Carolina General Assembly for civil disobedience.
The Rev. Linda Parker, rector of the North Carolina Central University Presbyterian Campus Ministry, was one of the early participants and was arrested—for the first time in her life— while protesting before the state capitol last May.
“We had the option to be arrested or just sit back while things happened, and I chose to be a voice [that] let legislators know how we felt,” the 65-year-old minister said.
Now the Moral Monday movement has exploded with an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people rallying in Raleigh this past February, and spinoffs taking flight in Georgia and South Carolina.
Rev. Parker said exposing the truth of North Carolina’s unfair policies is “worth anything that I personally suffered.” And, speaking in a genteel voice underlaid with steel,
she vowed to keep on speaking truth to power on behalf of her students and others whose lives are being used as fodder in political gamesmanship, and expressed confidence that righteousness would prevail.
“The God of justice that I serve will have the last word,” she said.