Disenfranchisement in North Carolina

Courtesy of Brentin Mock and Color Lines

Courtesy of Brentin Mock and Color Lines

By Maya Durvasula.

“How come the state of North Carolina doesn’t want people to vote?”

During a hearing before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Sept. 25, Judge James Wynn asked the question that, if you’ve been following the saga of voting rights in North Carolina, you’ve probably wondered once or twice as well. 

Whether you’ve seen the student voter registration agents canvassing campus or your cat received (inaccurate) information about voting protocol in the mail, it has been hard to avoid the realization that the deadline to register to vote and, shortly thereafter, Election Day are quickly approaching. As such, North Carolina’s prodigious efforts to obstruct its citizens’ fundamental right to participate in democratic processes are once again in the spotlight.

Nearly one year ago, here in the Duke Political Review, Michael Pelle explored the racist and factually-baseless nature of a controversial voting restriction law that was passed in North Carolina during the summer of 2013. Although ostensibly implemented to address voter fraud, there is no credible evidence to suggest that this is a problem in North Carolina. Out of 7 million ballots cast in 2012, there were only 121 allegations of fraud (.00174 percent). David Firestone pointed out in The New York Times that “Republicans aren’t even claiming the measure will reduce fraud – only that it will provide reassurance to those who worry about it.” According to House Speaker Thom Tillis, the measure “would make nearly three-fourths of the population more comfortable and confident when they go to the polls.” Since then, North Carolina’s voter suppression law has progressed through the court system, while other states have rushed into the voting wars” fray.

In June of 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act (1965), allowing nine states to change their election laws without receiving federal approval. Freed of this oversight requirement, the North Carolina state legislature passed a bill the next month that Rick Hasen, an election-law expert at the University of California, Irvine, deemed “the most sweeping anti-voter law in at least decades. 

The 2013 law requires a government-issued photo ID card to vote; student IDs, public-employee IDs, and photo IDs issued by public assistance agencies do not meet this requirement. The early voting period was shortened, while same-day registration during early voting, paid voter registration drives, and a high school civics program that encouraged students to register to vote before turning 18 were banned. Counties may not extend voting hours in case of long lines and ballots cast on Election Day outside of a voter’s home precinct may not be counted.

According to estimates generated following the introduction of this legislation, 319,000 people in the state lack photo ID, a disproportionate number of whom are black or poor. 

Representative Mickey Michaux, the longest-serving member of the North Carolina House and a civil rights movement veteran who grew up in the Jim Crow South, took to the floor during debate on the legislation in 2013 to make clear the implications of this legislation: “We have fought for, died for, and struggled for our right to vote. You can take these 57 pages of abomination and confine them to the streets of Hell for all eternity.”

The bill, which was passed by the Republican legislative supermajority and signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory, was challenged by three lawsuits filed by a coalition, which includes the League of Women Voters, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, and the state NAACP.

Coalition lawyers, working in conjunction with the U.S. Justice Department, argue that the changes to voter registration and voting protocol laws are designed to intentionally suppress turnout at polls among individuals who are likely to vote for Democrats – minorities, the elderly, and college students. (A measure that was introduced in April of 2013 was decidedly less subtle in its attempts to reduce Democratic voting strength in college towns like Durham and Chapel Hill, by eliminating the tax deduction for dependents’ parents if those students vote from college rather than in their hometowns. The bill’s short-form title was “Equalize Voter Rights.”)

On October 1, in a two-to-one majority ruling, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the right to vote outside of a citizen’s home precinct and the right to register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day. Judge James Wynn, who authored the majority opinion on the case, noted his agreement with the NAACP, which contends that the end of same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting disproportionately affects African-American and minority voters.  

Although this is a victory for the democratic process when it comes to these two reinstatements, the fight to protect the right to vote in North Carolina is far from over, especially as the State of North Carolina has expressed its intent to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Rev. Dr. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP branch, indicated that the NAACP would continue to fight until this bill is permanently overturned. “Until then, we will continue to take our movement to the streets to make sure all people in our democracy have an equal voice in this and all elections.”

Unfortunately, the history of the right to vote in America is characterized by its exclusions. We continue to see threats and challenges to the notion that voting must be fair and accessible from individuals who recognize that strong voter turnout and civic engagement threaten their power. These same individuals continue to challenge and disrupt fair and accessible electoral processes. The right to vote means that every eligible voter must have the opportunity to register to vote and to cast a ballot in a straightforward and accessible way, regardless of whether their voices threaten partisan interests.

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