A few weeks ago, I went to a Moral Monday “March to the Polls” at CCB Plaza.
The Rev. William Barber and other speakers enlightened me on how our Republican General Assembly took advantage of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision last summer and implemented a new election law that restricts the kinds of opportunities that used to encourage people from minority communities to vote.
Our legislators scaled back early voting, eliminated same-day registration and pre-registration for teens, and forced elections officials to throw out ballots cast in the right county but wrong precinct, instead of taking time to validate those voters.
“They cherry-picked all the procedures that African-Americans and youth were using, and those are the ones they went after,” Bob Hall told me a couple of weeks after the rally.
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Hall is executive director at Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan voter-rights group whose office is at Green and Iredell streets, a few blocks from where I live. Hall said the two biggest problems with the new voting law are 1) restricting registration to 25-plus days before the election, instead of allowing same-day registration during early voting; and 2) rejecting out-of-precinct ballots, which voters might try to cast at the election sites closest to their work or kids’ school, only to be turned away.
“They’ll say, nah, I ain’t gonna do this,” said Hall. “There’s a general atmosphere that has a chilling effect, rather than inviting. It’s just sort of this intimidating message. It makes voting feel like a complicated process. They’re going to censor themselves. They’re going to pull away, and that’s sad, but that’s exactly what it’s designed to do.”
To me, this has very much to do with the Mike Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo. If a community of citizens feels like its voice is not being heard, and then their government does them real, unequivocal and bodily harm, what recourse do they have but to revolt? If we’re supposed to live in a democracy, and your government not only doesn’t represent your interests but actually becomes an instrument of extreme violence against you, maybe rioting is the only thing you have left to get its attention.
Fortunately for North Carolina, Barber and the Moral Mondays movement has gotten ahead of the curve, with well-planned, peaceful protests and civil disobedience to get Raleigh’s attention. And now, along with Hall’s Democracy N.C., they’re going out and organizing voters. Hall said his group has rallied some 1,200 voter-drive volunteers this year, on par with a presidential election. He said the GOP was able to gain majorities in the General Assembly in 2010 because 200,000 African-American and 400,000 women failed to vote, even though they had in 2008 and would again in 2012.
The Rev. Sterling Freeman lives in Durham but pastors First Missionary Baptist Church in Smithfield, a site for Democracy N.C.’s “Souls to the Polls” voter-drive effort. By slicing a week off early-voting and mandating its end on the Saturday before Election Day, legislators eliminated the opportunity for voting on Sunday, Oct. 18, and Sunday, Nov. 2. In the counties where it was offered, Sunday early-voting had become a recent tradition for black churches, a communal experience, where members could go en-masse to a voting site after worship. Local elections boards can still opt to offer that on Oct. 25, but community-organizers like Freeman are working to make up the loss of two potential early-voting Sundays.
The clergyman has helped to rally dozens of voter-drive volunteers through African-American churches and black fraternity and sorority alumni in Johnston County, including about one-third of the members of his church of 100. They’ve been able to register scores of new voters this year.
“When I look at some of the laws that have come down, I can see the potential effects to marginalize certain groups of people,” he said. “We should be doing all we can to make sure that no one is marginalized.”
Does it have to get as ugly as Ferguson? Or can we hope for a government that works for us, rather than having the power to decide which of our lives is more valuable than the next?
Jesse James DeConto is an author, journalist and musician. He writes and performs with the indie-pop band The Pinkerton Raid. He is co-pastor of worship arts at Durham (Presbyterian) Church and author of the spiritual memoir, “This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World.”