In North Carolina, the Supreme Court decision invalidating a key provision of the Voting Rights Act meant full speed ahead for proponents of new voter-ID laws – at least that was the word last week.
Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Republican who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, who had called requirements for federal pre-clearance before voting changes “legal headaches,” said in reports that the court’s ruling “should speed things along greatly.”
Then on Monday, Apodaca said debate on the legislation requiring photo identification to vote in person in North Carolina would be put on hold for a week because Republicans are still working on it, according to the Associated Press. He gave no details.
Taking to the streets, and the polls?
As a continuing backdrop to the legislative back and forth, this week the state capital of Raleigh saw another headline-making weekly demonstration.
Now in the ninth week, the events are called “Moral Mondays” by the diverse and growing mix of clergy, students, elected officials, labor organizers and others showing up to protest the wave of conservative legislation and policies being considered and approved by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP super-majorities in the state House and Senate.
Republicans are emboldened by the court’s ruling and a chance to shape the makeup of North Carolina’s electorate before crucial national, state and local elections.
But as demonstrators cast the right to vote in moral terms, and link their cause to pioneering civil rights achievements, will a backlash energize African-American voters to turn out in even greater numbers?
It happened in Florida in 2012, when a cutback in early voting days resulted in minority voters who waited in long lines, almost defiantly, and were not discouraged.
About 80 protesters were arrested in Raleigh on Monday, bringing the total to about 700 in what organizers call the Forward Together Movement. Over the weekend, North Carolina became the first state to cut off federal unemployment checks for the long-term jobless. The move, which legislators said was necessary to pay back federal debt, was at the top of demonstrators’ list of complaints. (It earned a critical editorial from the Charlotte Observer, which said, “The jobless now face harsh and permanent cuts in benefits, while businesses will escape with smaller and temporary cuts. Even worse, N.C. lawmakers turned away $780 million the federal government was offering to unemployed North Carolinians if the state had just delayed its overhaul until Jan. 1.”)
But the Supreme Court’s decision that voting changes in states covered under the Voting Rights Act can move ahead without pre-clearance from the Justice Department was and has been a major concern. The ballot is seen as a way for citizens to push back against conservative legislators in upcoming elections in 2014 and 2016. “With the recent Supreme Court decision, our nation’s voting rights are far more vulnerable to attack, and the bills proposed in North Carolina are among the most extreme in the country,” said Penda D. Hair in a statement. She is co-director of Advancement Project, a civil rights organization that is providing legal support to the state NAACP.
The proposed regulations would shift North Carolina’s position as one of the most voter friendly states in the nation to one of the most restrictive. Proposals under consideration would require strict forms of photo ID to vote, eliminate same-day voter registration and Sunday voting, shorten early voting — used disproportionately by minorities, young people and Democrats – and impose a tax penalty on parents whose children register where they attend college.
An attempt to preserve the ‘solid South’
While just 40 of North Carolina’s 100 counties were included in the Voting Rights Act pre-clearance provision, its reach has been felt throughout the state in election and redistricting challenges.
The Rev. William Barber, the head of the North Carolina state NAACP, and a leader in “Moral Monday” marches, said in a conference call after the Supreme Court ruling was announced that efforts to restrict the vote are attempts to stave off the inevitable, “to hold onto the solid South,” as the electorate becomes more diverse.
Barber was joined in the call by Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, who said the organization would continue to fight changes in state laws, and Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange.org, the online civil rights organization, who advocated for a constitutional amendment for the right to vote. Gihan Perera, executive director of Florida New Majority, and Tram Nguyen, associate director of Virginia New Majority, discussed voting challenges in their states and spoke to a Southern coalition that is more than black and white.
Texas, which had voting changes blocked by the Justice Department, said immediately after the Supreme Court ruling that the path is now clear to proceed. Despite the debate delay, few think North Carolina Republicans will have a change of heart. At the recent state convention of the state GOP, McCrory told theGrio that he would sign a voter-ID bill when it reached his desk. He said he campaigned on it. “I won by over 10 points,” he said, “and that’s what the people sent me to do.”
But have the Republicans overreached with the swiftness of their legislative agenda? North Carolina is not Texas, which has overwhelmingly voted for Republican presidential candidates in recent elections.
A deeply purple state
Barack Obama narrowly and surprisingly won North Carolina in 2008, a fact that many, including Barber, believe is a reason — rather than concern for voter fraud — that Republicans began pushing voter-ID laws. It happened in many states controlled by GOP legislatures, and North Carolina was no exception.
In 2011, then-Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed a bill requiring voters to present government-issued photo identification but Republicans did not have the votes to override it.
Mitt Romney won North Carolina in 2012, but the vote was close. With Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan facing a tough re-election in 2014 for a seat national Republicans see as vulnerable, voting legislation is a particularly partisan and pitched battle.
Black voters make up close to 23 percent of the electorate, Latinos 4 percent, Barber noted in last week’s call, and so who votes is crucial looking ahead. He vowed to continue “shining a spotlight on what our legislature is trying to do in the dark,” he said. “The only battles we’ve ever lost are the one we don’t fight.” Part of the fight is a voter registration drive through Aug. 28, the anniversary of the March on Washington.
Follow Mary on Twitter @mcurtisnc3