By Chad Nance
Photos by Carissa Joines
“We have had to fight Democrats too. When it comes to our voting rights we will fight anybody, anytime!” The NCNAACP’s Rev. William Barber II preached to the crowd on a 90 degree Camel City summer night. Around 500 people gathered downtown in Corpening Plaza to hear speakers, activist, organizers, advocates, and citizens who held a voting rights rally following the first day of court hearings over HB589, the most restrictive piece of voter suppression legislation passed since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 opened voting for all.
The North Carolina NAACP, several churches, including Winston-Salem’s Emmanuel Baptist, and individual plaintiffs led by 92-year-old Rosanell Eaton are contending that HB589 violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act as well as the 14th, 15th and 26th Amendments to the Constitution. The plaintiffs are seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent implementation of HB589 for the upcoming 2014 elections. The cases will all be going to trial in 2015 so the issue will be settled either way before the 2016 Presidential race.
The elements of HB589 that the plaintiffs wish to block before trial are the elimination of same-day registration and voting; The elimination of out-of-precinct provisional voting; and the elimination of pre-registration of voters before their 18th birthday including funds for voter registration drives in high schools. Other provisions that the plaintiffs wish to hold off include the elimination of Sunday voting and reduction in the duration and availability of early-voting.
Alexander Peters with Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office opened the defense for the state and gave Rev. Barber his largest foil and biggest hook for the Moral Movement rally later in the evening. The state’s attorney argued that the purpose of a preliminary injunction is to preserve the “status quo” in order to prevent irreparable harm while a case is being decided. Peter’s claimed that HB589 is now the status quo because it has already been enacted. After the hearing Rev. Barber told reporters, “What they did was disrupt the status quo,” he said. “North Carolinians of all races, parties and sexual orientations have benefited from opening up access to voting. The demographics of our electorate were changing. Now they’re arguing that these laws should stay the same even if they’re unconstitutional.”
In his sermon on Monday night Rev. Barber went even farther, preaching, “Slavery was the status quo. Women’s suffrage was the status quo. Separate but equal was the status quo.” Barber’s voice rose with a preacher’s growl when he preached, “Jim Crow was the status quo!”
In her opening remarks at the hearing, the NCNAACP’s attorney Penda Hair argued that lawmakers knew when they passed the omnibus elections bill in 2013, that the various reforms passed in earlier years had increased African-American’s electoral participation. “The North Carolina General Assembly saw an increase in African-American voting after these reforms were enacted,” Hair told U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder. “They knew that restricting early voting would disproportionately impact African-American voters.”
Republicans have worked hard to put out the political message that HB589 is a “Voter ID” bill. When questioned about the law the only real defense the McCrory Administration and legislative Republicans have made is that you have to have an ID to buy allergy medicine. Requiring voters to have a state issued ID is only a small part of the bill.
HB589 will cost tax payers another $10.9 million due to the elimination of touch screen voting machines (to be replaced by paper ballots) in spite of the fact that there have been no incidents of voter fraud involving touch screen machines.
HB589 ends the practice of allowing 16 and 17 year-olds to pre-register to vote. It also ends the state program that funds voter registration drives in North Carolina’s public schools. A measure instituted in order to allow North Carolina students to become excited and invested in civic responsibility as early as possible.
HB589 ends strait-party voting.
HB589 ends filing a provisional ballot if a voter shows up at the wrong polling place. This happened regularly in the 2012 election due to district gerrymandering.
Beginning in 2014, HB589 takes the power to extend voting hours from local elections boards and gives it to the State Board of Elections, allowing the board in Raleigh to order the poll remain open extra time equal to whatever time was lost due to a disruption. The time a poll closes is critical because any voter in line at that time may still vote, even if they won’t cast their ballot until much later due to congestion. Extending the hours gives voters extra time to get in line. This opens the system up to allow the political party in power to extend voting hours based on the needs of their particular candidates.
HB589 will allow the two major political parties to place 12 poll “observers” into the polls and gives them the freedom to stand by and watch voters as they give their name and information to poll workers. It will also allow them to challenge any voter they wish. Opponents of this portion of the legislation point out that it will allow voter intimidation and confusion to the process as people chosen for partisan purposes will now be looking over the shoulder of every voter in North Carolina.
Further fostering intimidation, HB589 will allow political parties to bring in strangers from other parts of the state to challenge voters. Under current law, poll observers who can make challenges must be from the same precinct that they are observing in. That, at least, meant that observers were your neighbors and because they lived near you civility would be in order. Now anyone from anywhere in the state can be in your polling place challenging your right to vote, and you’ll never see them again.
Does anyone benefit from HB589? Certainly.
Candidates can now raise money by holding raffles giving away prizes donated by big money donors and businesses. In spite of Republicans saying that North Carolina teachers, public employees, and workers do not deserve or need (at a minimum) a cost of living increase, HB 589 allows for the limit an individual can donate to a candidate to go up with, you guessed it, the cost of living.
HB589 allows non-candidate groups, known as 501(c)4 nonprofits or Super PACS, to not report how much they spend on campaign-style ads until after Sept. 15 of an even-numbered election year. (When they are most active in state and national races.) Current law requires disclosure of such spending no matter when an ad airs.
If you were worried that large corporations had been left out of HB589, you needn’t have. Right now corporations cannot donate to political parties or campaigns. They are allowed to donate to “building funds” for a political party’s headquarters. HB589 expands the use of those building funds beyond the building itself. Parties will now be able to pay for the salaries of up to three staff members, travel and fundraising expenses and list it as “building fund“ expenses expanding the uses for which unlimited corporate contributions may be used.
One major contention of the plaintiffs in this case against the State of North Carolina is that the Republican Supermajority took extreme advantage of the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder which effectively eviscerated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. According to attorneys for the plaintiff’s, as soon as the Shelby decision removed Federal protections for voters from their state governments, HB589 went from a 12 page bill regarding Voter ID to a 57 page Monster Bill” that went farther with than any legislation since Jim Crow to suppress voting rights.
Rev. Barber told it this way in his Moral Movement rally sermon:
“Black folk don’t vote for us- cut ‘em out! Women don’t vote for us- cut ‘em out! Young people don’t vote for us- cut ‘em out! Latinos don’t vote for us- cut ‘em out! We’re gonna make them cut it out.” Rev. Barber said. “We will not let them have our right to vote.”
Organizers held an “altar-call” at the end of the rally where they called on activists in every county to take it upon themselves to register people to vote. Rev. Barber said that the Moral Movement will be holding rallies outside of Raleigh with the goal of getting 20 people in every county to agree to register 5 voters a week for 10 weeks straight.
Rev. Barber also announced the Movement’s plans for August. Beginning on August 21st the Movement will begin 7 days of protest at the State Capitol. Demonstrators intend to march around the North Carolina Legislative Building once a day for seven days like Joshua’s people marched around the city of Jericho during the Exodus. On the seventh day demonstrators will march around the building seven times and then some will engage in civil disobedience in a manner North Carolinians have become all to accustomed to.
The Moral Movement also plans to reach out to people in every southern state in an effort to have marchers at every state house in the south performing Jericho marches on that day. Judging from Monday’s Winston-Salem rally the energy, determination, and spirit is willing. The question remains, however, of who to vote for. With gerrymandering cutting up districts based on race and voter affiliation across the state, only a few dozen lawmakers even have challengers- and most of those are in heavily Republican districts that were designed to create a Republican political hegemony across North Carolina.
Those who gathered in Corpening Plaza stood together Monday night. They want to see change wash over the state like the cool breezes that occasionally moved through the shaded areas under the trees. The truth, however, is that this is only the beginning of a struggle that will take at least a decade to work itself out and will require as much strength of character and iron determination as it will require passion and excitement.