With a new voter ID requirement taking effect for next month’s primary, the NAACP’s biggest protest event of the year Saturday focused on voting rights.
Thousands attended the 10th annual Moral March on Raleigh and HKonJ People’s Assembly, filling an entire block of downtown’s Fayetteville Street with handmade signs, chants and singing. HKonJ stands for “Historic Thousands on Jones Street,” although the march no longer goes to Jones Street, where the state legislature is located.
Below-freezing temperatures didn’t seem to affect turnout, and NAACP state leader the Rev. William Barber reminded the crowd of what civil rights marchers faced in the past: violence, fire hoses and arrests.
“If they could stand the heat, we can stand the cold,” he said.
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Barber spoke out against a state law that starting this year requires voters to bring a photo ID or instead fill out a form explaining why they don’t have one. He said the change is one of the ways Republican legislators are trying to reduce election turnout.
“When you suppress the vote, politicians want us to be slaves to their decisions, without citizens being able to register their discontent at the ballot box,” he said. “They have made it easier to get a gun than to vote.”
Barber also pointed to a federal court’s ruling this month that two of North Carolina’s congressional districts are based too heavily on race and must be redrawn. The state legislature has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a stay and keep the current districts for this year’s elections, but with no reprieve yet, the House and Senate will begin a new redistricting process with a series of public hearings Monday.
Barber criticized Sen. Bob Rucho and Rep. David Lewis – the Republicans leading redistricting efforts – for saying the court is creating “chaos” in this year’s elections because it ruled after absentee voting began.
“What threw the state into chaos was those racist maps you drew in 2010,” Barber said. “I want to suggest to the General Assembly that they need to repent. Don’t blame the court, blame yourselves.”
Barber and the advocacy group Democracy North Carolina made what he called a “political altar call,” asking the crowd to volunteer to get out the vote and serve as poll monitors. Barber said he wants to “build an army” of 5,000 volunteers.
“People will be confused and frustrated” by the new requirements, Democracy North Carolina director Bob Hall said. “We’ve got to help them.”
Republican lawmakers have said the photo ID requirement is necessary to stop voter fraud, although last year they watered down the law by allowing voters without IDs to cast a provisional ballot.
And Republicans say they still believe the current congressional districts shouldn’t change, noting that they’ve been upheld by other courts, including the N.C. Supreme Court.
“We believe that these districts were drawn in accordance with the Constitution and are fair and legal,” N.C. Republican Party director Dallas Woodhouse said.
Woodhouse issued a statement Friday criticizing Saturday’s march, saying the “Moral Monday crowd” is “backed by out-of-state labor unions and special interests.”
Saturday’s march was partly a fundraising event for the NAACP, with plastic trash cans passed around to collect donations. Organizers also offered a phone number enabling supporters to donate by text message.
“We don’t have the Koch brothers and Art Pope to cover our tab,” the NAACP’s Laurel Ashton said, referring to wealthy conservative donors.
The March 15 primary is just weeks away, but political campaigns were largely absent from the Saturday event – with the exception of a few Bernie Sanders supporters handing out stickers for his presidential bid.
Barber said someone had been spreading false rumors that political campaigns weren’t welcome at the march.
“That’s a damn lie,” he said, explaining that campaigns were welcome to participate but wouldn’t be allowed to speak from the stage. “The Moral Monday movement will not be used by any campaign. We don’t endorse candidates, we endorse issues.”
Abortion, health care
Plenty of issues beyond voting rights were on display. Signs promoted a wide range of liberal causes, from coal ash cleanup to abortion rights.
Some even listed the bill numbers for controversial legislation passed by the N.C. General Assembly last year, including one that requires abortion providers to submit ultrasounds to a state agency when a woman has the procedure after 16 weeks of pregnancy.
Environmental, immigration and health care advocacy groups all got a few minutes in front of the podium.
Dr. Charlie van der Horst, who teaches at the UNC School of Medicine and was part of a group of medical professionals at the march, called on lawmakers to approve Medicaid expansion. He said it would provide insurance for more than 400,000 people in the state. Opponents say the move would be too costly.
We’re here to remind Gov. McCrory and our legislators of the impact of their decision on Medicaid expansion.
Dr. Charlie van der Horst
“We’re here to remind Gov. McCrory and our legislators of the impact of their decision on Medicaid expansion,” said van der Horst, wearing a white lab coat on stage. “Our governor is holding a gun to our patients’ heads.”
The march celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and many of the issues have been the same since the first march in 2007 – education, health care and racial discrimination.
Back then, Democrats were in power in the state, but the participants’ main target for criticism was the same: the General Assembly.