Black residents in North Carolina fear losing the ability to vote
Rosanell Eaton outsmarted literacy tests and defied cross-burnings to vote in the Jim Crow South. But she may have met her match in North Carolina’s restrictive new voting measure, a lawsuit claims.
Growing up in the 1920s and ’30s in Louisburg, N.C., Eaton went to a segregated school, and drank from “colored” water fountains. As soon as she was old enough, Eaton went to the county courthouse, on a wagon pulled by a mule, to register to vote—where, as part of a literacy test designed to weed out blacks, she was forced by registrars to recite the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Eaton had been the valedictorian of her class, and she recited the passage successfully. She went on to vote reliably and to help other local blacks register—an activity for which she received crosses burned on her front lawn, and a bullet just below her bedroom window.
But now, in her tenth decade of life—and nearly a half century after the Voting Rights Act appeared to settle the question for good—Eaton’s right to vote may be in jeopardy. After the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the landmark civil-rights law earlier this summer, North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature pushed through what many experts have called the nation’s most restrictive voting measure, which was signed Monday by Gov. Pat McCrory, also a Republican.
“Here I am at 92 years old doing the same battling,” Eaton told a crowd Tuesday morning at a rally to protest the law.
Starting in 2016, the law will require not just that voters present a valid photo ID, but also that it exactly match the name on their voter registration card—an even stricter requirement than some past photo ID laws. Eaton has a valid driver’s license, Penda Hair, a lawyer with the Advancement Project, a civil-rights group, told MSNBC. But the name on the license doesn’t exactly match that on her registration card. Fixing the problem will likely be a bureaucratic nightmare that would test even a much younger person, and will cost significant time as well as money. In addition, the new law significantly cuts early voting, which Eaton frequently used. And it ends the state’s popular system of same-day registration, as well as a program encouraging high-school students to pre-register.
Eaton’s plight was detailed in a lawsuit filed Monday afternoon by the NAACP and the Advancement Project, challenging the law, which, it says, “imposes unjustified and discriminatory electoral burdens on large segments of the state’s population and will cause the denial, dilution, and abridgment of African-Americans’ fundamental right to vote.”
A similar but separate lawsuit was filed Monday by the ACLU, joined by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice on behalf of the North Carolina League of Women Voters.
Opponents of the law have been quick to draw parallels with past efforts to disenfranchise blacks. “Governor Pat McCrory and the North Carolina Legislature are on the wrong side of history,” Rev. William Barber II, the president of the state’s NAACP chapter, said in a statement issued Tuesday morning. “This Anti-Voting Rights Bill tramples on the blood of our martyrs,” and “desecrates the graves of freedom fighters.”
Barber, who has led the local ongoing “Moral Monday” protests, compared the philosophy behind the law to the extreme states-rights doctrine advanced by George Wallace and Strom Thurmond. “We will fight this race-based, immoral and regressive bill with everything we have and believe we will be victorious,” he added.
In an op-ed piece published Monday in the Raleigh News and Observer, McCrory justified the law as necessary to combat voter fraud—despite an apparent acknowledgment that such fraud is all but non-existent. “Even if the instances of misidentified people casting votes are low, that shouldn’t prevent us from putting this non-burdensome safeguard in place,” McCrory wrote.
According to the state’s own numbers, 316,000 North Carolinians—disproportionately blacks, Hispanics, and the poor—lack the I.D. required under the law.
The NAACP’s lawsuit argues that because it disproportionately affects racial minorities, the voting law violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 2 bars racial discrimination in voting nationwide, and was left untouched by the Supreme Court’s ruling—though, as MSNBC reported last month, there have been recent hints that it too could be a ripe target for conservative foes of voting protections. The suit also challenges the law under the 14th and 15thAmendments of the U.S. Constitution.
The Supreme Court invalidated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required most southern states, including much of North Carolina, to “pre-clear” any voting changes with the U.S. Justice Department, in order to ensure they don’t have the effect of hurting minorities. North Carolina is the first state to enact a restrictive voting law since the court’s ruling. But other states, including Texas, Mississippi, and Virginia, have pushed ahead with similar laws in response to the decision.