Point of View

Pick a side, NC: Our voting rights are on the chopping block

April 9, 2013 

One night in the Kentucky hills, the home of union organizer Sam Reece was ambushed by Harlan County Sheriff J.H. Blair and his men. It was 1931, and the region’s miners were on strike against large coal corporations – which led to a violent rampage against union leaders.

Sam fled before they arrived, but deputies still ransacked the house, terrorizing his wife, Florence, and their young children. Florence Reece wrote the fiery lyrics to a song called “Which Side Are You On?” that night:

They say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there.

You’ll either be a union man or a thug for J.H. Blair.

Which side are you on? Which side are you on?

Today, as lawmakers try to ambush voting rights, we ask North Carolina the same question: Which side are you on?

Some members in the House and Senate have made it clear that they intend to restrict democracy. This month lawmakers introduced a wave of voter-suppression bills that would roll back nearly every advance that North Carolina has won over the past decade.

Their proposals cut a full week from the early voting period, repeal same-day voter registration during early voting and ban early voting on Sundays. These bills reverse highly effective measures that have increased voter participation in the state, particularly among African-Americans, who are far more likely than white voters to use early voting and especially Sunday voting. Because of these laws, between 2004 and 2008, North Carolina had the largest increase in voter participation in the nation.

Lawmakers have rapidly piled on even more bills designed to silence the voices of certain voters, including a requirement for voters to present strict forms of state-issued photo ID. According to state records, hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians lack this type of identification, and those residents are disproportionately voters of color, the elderly, the poor and young people. Let’s be clear: The legislation before the General Assembly is not a compromise, as some lawmakers have claimed. It is one of the strictest voter ID bills in the nation.

They also want to enforce a five-year waiting period, after ex-offenders have served their time, to get back fundamental voting rights – and only with the unanimous approval of their county board of elections. In a blatant attempt to curb the votes of college students, another bill would reduce tax breaks for parents of college students if a child registers to vote in the city where she attends school. With their crude attempts to manipulate election law, these bill sponsors want to move North Carolina backward.

But we have another choice. We can stand on the side of lawmakers who want to expand democracy. Also this month, four House members – Democratic Leader Larry Hall, and Reps. Garland Pierce, H.M. Michaux and Deb McManus – introduced the Voting Improvement Act, which champions a very different vision for the state.

Their bill would improve the election process by increasing early-voting weekend hours, expanding same-day voter registration to include Election Day and designating Election Day a state holiday. The bill also mandates an online 21st century voter registration system, requires registration agencies to inform eligible citizens that they may register to vote and institutes high school education requirements on the process of registering to vote.

This is what we must do for an inclusive, robust democracy – build on, not roll back, the election reforms that have distinguished this state’s voting system as one of the best in the country.

The stakes are too high for North Carolina residents to sit on the sidelines. We, along with a multiracial and multigenerational coalition of more than 145 organizations, stand united and prepared to fight the General Assembly’s shameful barrage of restrictive voter bills with every legal strategy and tool at our disposal. As we continue to build and organize, we are reminded of Florence Reece’s galvanizing words: Which side are you on?

We don’t have to agree on everything, but on some things all people of goodwill should agree: When it comes to the fundamental right to vote, we will never back down.

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is president of North Carolina NAACP State Conference. Penda D. Hair is co-director of Advancement Project, a civil rights organization in Washington that partners with local groups on voter protection issues.

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