In NC, a legislative crusade against democracy

Opponents of a voter ID bill being debated in the N.C. House at the Legislative Building in Raleigh, on April 24, 2013 wear black tape over their mouths as a sign of protest against the proposal.
Opponents of a voter ID bill being debated in the N.C. House at the Legislative Building in Raleigh, on April 24, 2013 wear black tape over their mouths as a sign of protest against the proposal. cseward@newsobserver.com

A “local” bill introduced by Forsyth County Republican legislators Donny Lambeth and Debra Conrad would reduce the number of Winston-Salem city council wards from eight to five. It would also create three at-large members, alter the voting powers of the mayor, and, most pointedly, triple bunk three incumbent, black Democratic council members. Finally, the proposal would reduce both the number and percentage of wards containing minority majorities. No consultation with the Democrat-dominated council was thought necessary before hampering the electoral prospects of the black women incumbents.

Thus rides again North Carolina’s white person’s party. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.”

It’s probably impossible to predict whether House Bill 519 will gain the acceptance of both houses. But it is tough to overstate the General Assembly’s affection for democracy-destroying measures. The Lambert-Conrad crew apparently doesn’t like the way Winston-Salem voters cast their franchise. Local bills aren’t subject to the governor’s veto. And few opportunities are missed to gather all powers to the state legislature. I wouldn’t bet against it.

The Winston Salem proposal is yet another legislative product aimed at diminishing the electoral and participatory rights of African-Americans. The equity-denying steps will be taken knowingly and purposefully; the targeted victims are precise and (sadly) predictable. I have little doubt the measures will, if passed, be found to violate the voting rights act and the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments. It’s strange to have a legislature so contemptuous of law.

Of course the Forsyth legislators claim they have no racial designs. They feel only a sudden unsought compulsion to make Winston-Salem elections more like Charlotte and Raleigh ones, which include at-large members. It is only the rankest coincidence that the wayward black Democratic women — D.D. Adams, Vivian Burke and Annette-Scippio — receive the rough treatment. Who knows how that happened? Bad luck I guess.

This recurring, debilitating pattern of ancillary, unintended black misfortune has shown up a lot during the last seven years of Republican rule. The list has now become too extensive to be recited in a 600-word essay. But it includes, state and federal racial gerrymandering, biased voter ID rules, racialized poll access restrictions, invigorated school segregation, eliminated race discrimination suits, deified confederate monuments, shielded police camera footage, terminated racial justice legislation, statutorily targeted black supreme court candidacies, and more. All were passed for purported fanciful, non-racial reasons. But when white-only Republican caucuses repair to their secret sessions to write the laws of North Carolina, the “luck” of black Tar Heels consistently goes south. Literally and figuratively.

It is no doubt true that HB 519 reflects other Republican habits as well. The proposal is invidiously partisan. If Republicans had won the Winston-Salem elections, Lambert and Conrad would have remained silent as the tomb. Local government prerogative is again trampled — as in Charlotte, Asheville, Greensboro and Wake County. And the justification offered by the proponents is a laughable lie, demonstrating the increasingly sharpened habit of governing by perjury.

Still, this muscular agenda of racism is different. It’s not meant to be part of the barter and trade of democratic governance. It’s the deal breaker. It rejects the very foundation of the American promise. I don’t know how many of these religious fundamentalists, tax crusaders, libertarians, and country club Republicans meant to sign up for a racialized, white party regime. But it’s the banner under which they presently sail. We have the right to expect a little patriotism instead.

Contributing columnist Gene Nichol is the Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina.

Correction: An earlier version of this column ts column misspelled the name of one of the co-sponsors of the bill to change Winston-Salem’s City Council elections. It is Rep. Donny Lembeth, not Lambert.