I have a few copies of the Constitution of the United States. The pocket copy I keep handy was given to me by the late UNC law professor and civil rights lawyer Dan Pollitt, whose favorite saying was Illegitimi non carborundum or, loosely translated “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
I miss Dan Pollitt. I miss all the people like him who did the hard work of freeing this state from the cold lingering grip of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation – systems of racial oppression that should have been buried years ago.
Pollitt understood that the infrastructure of these systems would not collapse on its own. It had to be dismantled piece by piece.
So, here we are once again.
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I’ve never met anyone anywhere who truly believes this country is as post-racial as Chief Justice John Roberts described in Shelby County v. Holder, the case that gutted part of the Voting Rights Act. But many of us had allowed ourselves to believe that the moral arc of the universe was still bending toward justice.
The events of the past few years have shaken faith in that assumption and proven that there remains a great well of contempt for the concepts of fairness and equality, especially when they get in the way of the exercise of raw power.
I don’t know if you’ve read the recent lengthy decision on our state legislative districts issued by the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, but it is a damning indictment laying out with stunning clarity the use of racial politics to gain and maintain a firm grip on our legislature.
The details are different, but this really is an old story. Bone deep.
The 2011 North Carolina redistricting, both congressional and state legislature, increased Republican political gains in a master stroke of gerrymandering and then cemented those gains through districts insulated from demographic trends and, as the court found, protected from the growing participation of black voters by packing those voters into dense, convoluted districts.
The 2011 legislative case, which has taken more than five years to work its way through state and federal courts, should be taken in context with the strategy the legislature pursued in 2013 when it passed VIVA, the Voter Identification Verification Act which this summer was also found by a federal court to be aimed at disenfranchisement. The timeline of the bill tells you why.
When first proposed, VIVA’s ID requirement included a broad range of acceptable forms of IDs. After introduction, there was little movement on the law until the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby ruling which eliminated the requirement for preclearance of voting law changes by the Department of Justice.
What followed in North Carolina and elsewhere has turned out to disprove the notion that we’ve evolved beyond the need for special vigilance. In several states formerly subject to preclearance there was a rush to change elections and voting laws. Years later, one by one, those laws are being struck down. The damage done in some cases cannot be easily undone.
VIVA was one of those laws. Although it’s still defended as “common sense Voter ID” legislation, its myriad of provisions were quickly rewritten in the wake of the Shelby ruling in a way that history will record as another shameful example of disenfranchisement in North Carolina.
Yet it continues to be defended as just by the governor and legislative leaders, and facing a court order to roll back its changes, party leaders are calling for the most “politically” advantageous manipulation of hours, times and locations. Some elections officials are balking, some going all in.
Even worse, to shore up their arguments about voter fraud, supporters are joining those on the national stage whipping distrust and claiming widespread fraud even in the face of evidence it is nearly non-existent.
A few of VIVA’s lesser-known provisions increased the potential for voter challenges and other mischief at the polls, something that ought not be forgotten as we hear more stories of groups organizing to patrol voting places.
We are in dangerous territory for any democracy. It’s a lousy feeling. But you know what Dan Pollitt what say about that.
Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org