President Obama has said that Dr. King led our country on a salvation path for the oppressed as well as the oppressor. I love this statement because it highlights Dr. King’s vision that the political is the personal. Just as relationships between individuals can only work if they’re based on mutual respect, our democracy can function only if its laws advance— not thwart—each person’s dignity and right to political expression.
In North Carolina yesterday, we saw commitment to dignity in action. Thousands of North Carolinians traveled from all over the state to support the lawsuit challenging the 2013 Voter Information Verification Act, during the first day of trial. The law weakens or cuts voting measures that are used disproportionately by people of color and young voters. By making it harder for those groups to vote, the law is a cynical attempt to exclude citizens who have been historically marginalized by our political process.
Specifically, the bill shortens the early voting period, eliminates same day registration during early voting, ends out-of-precinct voting, and discontinues preregistration of 16- and 17-year-old citizens. It also imposes photo ID requirements, which when passed in 2013 were among the strictest in the nation.
Recently, thanks to evidence of the law’s discriminatory effect that surfaced during public hearings, the legislature was pressured to pass an amendment relaxing the ID requirements. Not surprisingly, the 2013 bill was enacted within weeks of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which invalidated the requirement that states such as North Carolina (which historically discriminated against African Americans during elections) must submit for the Justice Department’s approval any changes to their voting processes.
At yesterday’s march, organized by the North Carolina NAACP, a wonderfully diverse group of people spoke, sang, and collectively voiced their refusal to allow their state to move backwards by resurrecting barriers to voting.
Project Vote attended the march to support Democracy North Carolina, which is one of the plaintiffs challenging the 2013 law. In a different voting rights case, Project Vote attorneys represent Democracy North Carolina, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, and Action North Carolina. North Carolina public assistance agencies and the State Board of Elections are not complying with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which requires that public assistance clients be given voter registration services when they conduct certain kinds of transactions with the agencies. The North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles is also failing to provide voter registration to individuals as required by the NVRA. Last spring we sent pre-litigation notice letters to the state outlining these violations. We’re willing to discuss compliance measures the state can take under a written settlement agreement. However, if the state does not voluntarily come into compliance with the NVRA, we will file suit to force it to do so.
Following federal voting laws is not optional for any state, including North Carolina. Federal voting laws like the NVRA were enacted to make it easier for eligible citizens to vote. Yesterday, thousands of North Carolinians representing multiple ethnicities, religions, ages, and affiliations voiced their faith in democracy by demanding laws that expand— not constrict— the electorate. As my favorite sign proclaimed yesterday: What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like!
Catherine M. Flanagan is Senior Counsel of Project Vote’s Government Agency Voter Registration Project.