A few days ago, I had a long conversation with Sally Robare of Shelby. It reminded me, potently, of two things: how much I abhor the moves by the governor and General Assembly to disenfranchise vulnerable North Carolinians and how inspiring an engaged, feisty, courageous and annoyed citizen can be.
Robare, 65, lives in the Lions Senior Village in Cleveland County. She moved there from New York four years ago. She registered to vote and easily cast her ballot in 2012. The folks at the polling station were extraordinarily nice, she says.
But then she read she would soon need a state photo ID to vote. She didn’t have a car, a North Carolina driver’s license or a passport. She hadn’t driven in years and had no need for such. So she decided to go to the Shelby DMV to get an ID.
The trip itself was a production. Sally had a heart attack a couple years ago and has had heart trouble since. Moving around isn’t easy. So getting across town and especially waiting in line at the DMV would be a challenge. The Lions Village has an elder van, but it’s available only for medical matters. A cab ride, she discovered, would cost $12 each way, which she couldn’t readily afford.
Still, she was patient and eventually found a friend who could give her a ride. She didn’t think getting an ID would be a problem. She had her New York driver’s license; her Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare cards; a utility bill with her present address; and a letter from her landlord. She became apprehensive, though, as she waited in line. The only person working in the office wore a uniform and looked like a police officer. He’d been rude to everyone in front of her.
When her turn finally came, she explained she wanted to get an ID so she could vote. “I handed him my license and other things,” she said. The agent looked at her license and threw it back on the counter. “Don’t you know you can’t use that?” he said. “It’s expired.” Robare explained she didn’t know it had expired. He refused to look at the other documents and turned her away. “He treated me like I was stupid,” she said. “I was in tears.” Feeling defeated and a little shamed, she went home.
After doing more research, she learned she needed a copy of her birth certificate. That was something of a problem. Robare is adopted, and in New York her records were sealed. So she was told she would have to apply specially to Albany. But she was dogged, learned where to make the request and paid the elevated fee and delivery costs. The bill came to $72. But she now has, for the first time in ages, a birth certificate.
Robare hasn’t gone back to the DMV yet, so her quest is not complete. It’s still hard to get a ride, and she has been sick a lot. She’s also worried the same man will be there. She believes if there is any way he can turn her down, he will.
That won’t stop her, though. “He can smoke me all he wants,” she said. “He’s not going to keep me from voting.” Besides, when dealing with a state agency, she expects to “sit back, take your shoes off and take awhile.” She wasn’t prepared, however, for the “mouthiness.”
Robare indicated she doesn’t really understand the political divisiveness in North Carolina. But if you don’t vote, you’ve got no right to complain. “I never dreamed it would be so hard just to get to vote like every other American, but I guess that’s the way people want it here.”
This required gauntlet is an outrage to the U.S. Constitution. Recall that even a $2 poll tax is prohibited. The fact that the Republican legislature and governor launched it under patent and cynical pretext compounds the wound. The privileges and obligations of American citizenship are not trifles – they are not to be sneered at and debased if politicians don’t like the way you vote. The transgression is not to be forgiven just because it comes with a smile and a harangue that it’s only “common sense.”
I’m guessing Tar Heels will long remember the political party that tried, anew, to keep them from their birthright. And Republicans will learn not to mess with folks like Sally Robare.
Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.