Fifty years ago, registering to vote across much of the South meant guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap. And while the Voting Rights Act broke down many of the formal and more ridiculous barriers to voting, today — in 2015 — there are still too many barriers to the vote, and too many people trying to erect new barriers to the vote. They’re even written into the code of law in some parts of our country — provisions specifically designed to make it harder for some people to vote.
— President Barack Obama, Aug. 6 2015, the 50th anniversary of Voting Rights Act
by Félix Pérez
Two months after the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act — which broke down legal barriers at the state and local level that had prevented African Americans and others from exercising their constitutional right to vote — voting rights advocates have their eyes set on North Carolina as the bellwether for how far states will go in erecting new barriers to voting.
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The latest salvo came last month, when a Wake County judge refused a request from state lawmakers to dismiss a lawsuit challenging a voter ID requirement. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which includes the League of Women Voters of North Carolina and the American Civil Liberties Union , argue that state legislators violated the state constitution when they added the ID requirement as part of an elections law overhaul in 2013. In addition to the ID requirement, legislators shortened weekday early voting periods, eliminated early voting on Sundays, eliminated preregistration for high school students, and eliminated same-day registration during early voting. More than 70 percent of African-American voters utilized early voting during the 2008 and 2012 general elections.
The lawsuit states: “North Carolina has a long and sad history of official discrimination against African Americans, including official discrimination in voting that has touched upon the right of African Americans and other people of color to register, vote, or otherwise participate in the democratic process.” The law’s provisions “unduly burden” the right to vote and discriminate against African-American voters, maintains the legal challenge.
Advocates of voter IDs and other restrictions argue that they are necessary to prevent voter fraud. Voting rights advocates respond that not only is voter fraud a rare occurrence, but conservative lawmakers passed such laws with the intention of discriminating against African Americans, Latinos, students, and poor and elderly residents who are less likely to vote for them. According to the State Board of Elections, more than 600,000 registered voters lack photo ID.
The U.S. Justice Department has also filed a lawsuit against the North Carolina law as well. It alleges the state also targeted minorities by requiring photo identification, reducing voting hours and abolishing same-day registration.
Voting rights advocates have cited the cost associated with acquiring government IDs as a barrier to poor urban and rural voters, who often do not have the means or transportation to go to government offices to get an ID.
One such place where it will be a lot harder for African Americans to get an ID is Alabama. This week the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency announced that it would close driver license bureaus in eight of 10 counties with the highest percentage of non-white registered voters. In other words, in a state where a special government ID is now required to vote, every county in which blacks make up more than 75 percent of registered voters will see their driver license office closed.
It’s not just a civil rights violation. It is not just a public relations nightmare. It is not just an invitation for worldwide scorn and an alarm bell to the Justice Department. It is an affront to the very notion of justice in a nation where one man one vote is as precious as oxygen. It is a slap in the face to all who believe the stuff we teach the kids about how all are created equal.