Voters purged from the election rolls, shuffled between voting sites or being asked for identification — these are just some of the things that lawyers Laverne Berry and Steven Miller observed when they came to North Carolina as election monitors during the 2016 election.
And they say all those obstacles tend to discourage people from voting.
“Capturing the Flag,” a new documentary directed by Anne de Mare, follows the two New York lawyers and several other volunteers as they worked in Fayetteville to protect voters.
The film made its world debut Sunday at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham.
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De Mare’s original idea was to make a 10-minute educational video on voting, but said she was disheartened by the diminishing role of citizens in the political process. Instead, she made a 76-minute film that focuses on North Carolina voters and recent election law challenges.
But, de Mare said, it also illustrates the power of people voting at the polls.
“So much of what we hear about politics is about the people at the very top and the huge power structures and the huge money structures that control the country,” said de Mare, an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, in an interview after the film premiered.
“But what I hope the film can do is say we have to fight corruption on all those levels," she said. "We have to fight the dark money, we have to fight the gerrymandering, we have to fight the bureaucracy of government that stops it from being able to govern the people. But what we also need to do and what we can do is strengthen ourselves from the bottom up. We need to vote; we need to remember that our political reality does begin and end at the polls.”
The group of volunteers featured in the film, which was working with the Democratic Party, traveled to polling places and helped people who faced obstacles when they went to vote.
It was the first presidential election since the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down the requirement in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that state and local governments in certain states receive federal approval before changing their election laws.
Shortly after that ruling, North Carolina’s legislature passed a voter ID law. In addition to requiring voters to show specific kinds of photo identification, the law prohibited voters from registering to vote and casting ballots on the same day. It sought to eliminate out-of-precinct voting as well as preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds who would turn 18 by Election Day. And it eliminated a week of early voting.
But a federal court struck down the voting restrictions before the 2016 general election, stating that they "target African Americans with almost surgical precision."
Because of the controversy over the law, the film’s subjects referred to the state as “ground zero” for voter suppression. The film shows one polling place in Fayetteville where a volunteer was stationed. More than 1,200 people showed up to vote, but only 598 of them were able to cast valid votes. It's unclear why that was the case.
Many of the problems the volunteers encountered centered on the thousands of voters who were purged from the voter rolls before the November general election due to a state law that allowed individual voters to challenge anyone’s registration. The voters were removed after mail sent to their homes was returned as undeliverable.
The North Carolina NAACP filed a lawsuit challenging the voter purges in three counties just before Election Day, arguing that they violated the National Voter Registration Act. A federal judge sided with the NAACP, calling the efforts a “cattle call” just four days before the election and ordering for the voters to be reinstated.
Still, there was confusion on Election Day. Despite the voter ID law being overturned, not all voters and poll workers were aware of the rules, a January report from voting rights organization Democracy North Carolina found.
One woman in the film was asked to present an ID and had to return home to retrieve it. Others were told they were not in the correct precinct.
The film also shows the volunteers meeting voters whose names had been purged and were required to fill out provisional ballots at the poll site. Provisional ballots are reviewed by county boards of elections. According to the film, fewer than one-third of the provisional ballots in Cumberland County, where Fayetteville is located, were counted.
While the movie’s look at voting rights was somber, there were moments of humor. As the volunteers watched the election results in their hotel room, Miller rants about his dislike of President Trump, prompting laughter from the audience.
But In a panel after the film, Miller said both parties need to support expanding voting rights.
“We have to get back to not so long ago, when there was bipartisan agreement that voting is the essential base of democracy and that everyone’s right to vote has to be firmly and strongly protected,” he said.
De Mare said because her original intent was to create a shorter film, the film has been operating ahead of its budget. She is still looking at options for distribution and other showings.
Although both Miller and Berry are entertainment lawyers and take time off to volunteer at the polls, the pair plans to return to North Carolina for the 2018 midterm elections.
“When you say to yourself — and none of us are rich — you’re going to take a week off from work to go and do something, you want to make your time count for something,” Berry said in an interview.
For more on the film, go to capturingtheflag.com.