Civil rights advocates held a community forum Sunday at Martin Street Baptist Church to discuss what they called an “egregious rollback of voting rights and protections” in the aftermath of new laws passed nationally, and particularly by the Republican-dominated state government.
The meeting was convened by the Raleigh-Apex chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
North Carolina NAACP political action Chair Erin Byrd described the meeting – attended by about 30 people – as a part of ongoing efforts to inform and educate the public about state and federal developments with the goal of protecting the constitutional right to vote for all citizens. Byrd called such meetings a “two-way street” providing information to the community as well as feedback for the organization.
“Public education is probably the central effort to the NAACP or any organization that’s concerned about justice,” Byrd said. “It’s really critical that people know what their rights are, know what the bills say.”
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N.C. Central University law professor and NAACP legal redress Chair Irv Joyner updated attendees on various recent legislative and legal processes, including legal challenges to the state election reform law. He called Congress’ proposed Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 a good first step that needs strengthening by the NAACP. That bill wouldn’t cover North Carolina because the threshold for violations of voter rights is too low as currently written.
“North Carolina has a history of suppressing the minority vote,” Joyner told the group. “We know. We are the victims of that, and we know what the state is capable of doing.”
In August, Gov. Pat McCrory signed legislation from the General Assembly that requires voters show IDs before being allowed to cast a ballot and shortens the period for early voting from 10 days to 17. It also ends same-day registration and preregistration of minors who will be 18 on Election Day. The law was promoted as necessary to ensure the integrity of elections. A ruling on the legal challenge is pending in the state Supreme Court.
Groups on the left have criticized the measure as voter suppression targeted at groups likely to vote Democratic. Joyner talked about how early and same-day voting expanded access to the ballot box when many working-class people, members of minority groups in particular, didn’t have the time or ability to stand in line.
He also spoke about elderly voters who may not have a birth certificate, a requirement for a free state ID. Byrd and Joyner touched on the common refrain that the restrictions address a nonexistent problem, as voter fraud cases are extremely rare.
“We have people in our community that have been voting for decades, and instances for voter fraud are zero, I mean you can barely find any instances,” Byrd said. She argued that requiring a rural voter to pay for transportation to a nearest Division of Motor Vehicles office – possibly more than 50 miles away – for an ID would provide an unacceptable barrier to a constitutional right.
Supporters of the law cited polls indicating a majority in the state and nation support general ID requirements. In an opinion piece defending the law in The News & Observer, McCrory dismissed the idea of the requirements being burdensome. He said the changes resembled recommendations made by a bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III.
“The need for photo ID has been questioned by those who say voter fraud is not a problem in North Carolina,” McCrory said in the column. “However, without the higher level of identification a photograph provides, is it possible to know? Even if the instances of misidentified people casting votes are low, that shouldn’t prevent us from putting this non-burdensome safeguard in place.”
Opponents of the new laws noted the lack of effort to tighten restrictions on absentee ballots, which some have said remain the easiest path to voter fraud. Absentee ballots skew heavily Republican. In response to the criticism requirements were added to absentee voting, including requirements of either a driver’s license or state ID number, or the last four digits of a Social Security number.