Putting a face on voter suppression

Putting a face on voter suppression

- in Weekly Briefing


Report details the real life havoc that North Carolina’s controversial new voting laws are wreaking

There’s been a lot of sobering – even horrifying and unspeakable – news scrolling across our TV’s, computer screens and personal devices in recent weeks. Thanks to modern communications technology, violent images that once existed only in the darker recesses of our imaginations are now there for the watching, sometimes inescapably, 24-7.

Fortunately, if a picture is worth a thousand words then a video of actual violence (or even footage of a real person spared from it) can sometimes be worth a thousand times a thousand when it comes to awakening people to evil and injustice and overcoming the denial and avoidance tactics that we all employ. There’s something about seeing the face of a real person forced to endure a great horror that can quickly transform a noxious societal phenomenon from something that’s frowned upon into something that’s simply unacceptable.

The actual images of violence or injustice – be it a batterer’s punch in a casino elevator or the weathered face of a simple man imprisoned for 30 years and nearly executed for a crime someone else committed – are often far more effective in mobilizing widespread public sentiment than a hundred scholarly essays. It’s one thing to attend a vigil for victims of domestic violence or read a Supreme Court opinion on the death penalty; it’s quite another to actually see a football player knock out a woman with a boxer’s hook or examine the eyes of a mentally challenged man robbed of the best years of his life and forced to live for three decades under the specter of being put to death.

Another real life injustice

Let’s hope something akin to the dramatic changes that have affected public attitudes toward domestic violence and the death penalty in recent days as a result of the Ray Rice and Henry McCollum cases comes to affect the controversial subject of voting rights in the weeks and months ahead. The spur should be a new and remarkable report that was released last week by the government watchdogs at Democracy North Carolina.

For years now, civil rights advocates have issued report after report and filed lawsuit after lawsuit challenging the transparent efforts of conservative activists to suppress the vote of disfavored groups of Americans – racial minorities, the poor, the elderly, and the disabled. And while those efforts have occasionally lifted up a courageous individual or two who has been willing to come forward and be publicly identified, the new report by Democracy NC takes things several steps further by identifying more than 450 actual North Carolina voters who were disenfranchised just this past May by the state’s 2013 “Monster Voting Law.”

This is from the report:

We analyzed the provisional ballots cast in the 2014 primary by more than 400 voters whose votes would have counted in 2012, but who were rejected this year because of two changes in the rules: (1) these voters were unable to register during the Early Voting period because they couldn’t use the old ‘same-day registration’ law; or (2) they were unable to cast a ballot on Election Day outside of their own polling place because they couldn’t use the old ‘out-of-precinct voting’ law.

Voters denied a chance to have their voices heard include a veteran returning from Afghanistan whose registration was incorrectly terminated while he was away; a first-time voter who registered at the DMV, but that registration didn’t reach the local board of elections; a precinct judge assigned to a precinct other than her own who couldn’t leave to vote in her home precinct; a disabled senior who was driven to a friend’s polling place on Election Day; a nurse who temporarily registered her car in a nearby county while working at its hospital for nine months; a college student who registered during a voter drive but her application was not recorded; and a new couple in town who mailed in their registration but it did not reach the county board of elections before the registration deadline.”

The report goes on to explain that while the 454 voters in question are of all parties and races (you can read each of their names and home towns on pages 4 through14 of the report), the details about who they actually are confirm many people’s worst fears and predictions:

While Black voters make up 22% of all registered voters, they were 39% of those who lost their votes because of the two rule changes – the elimination of same-day registration and elimination of out-of-precinct voting on Election Day.

Democrats are 42% of the state’s registered voters, but 57% of those disenfranchised by the new rules.”

To make matters even more egregious, there are plenty more where these folks came from. Again here’s Democracy NC:

These 454 voters are obviously just the tip of the iceberg of the thousands who faced the same problems when they went to vote in the primary and who simply left the polling place without taking the time to fill out the paperwork and file a provisional ballot.“

Responding to the injustice

To their credit, the authors of the report used the announcement of their findings last week as a tactic for alerting average voters to the new challenges many of them will likely confront as the 2014 election approaches. The report calls on North Carolinians to double-check their registration prior to the October 10 registration deadline and to take advantage of the early voting days not yet eliminated just in case problems arise and/or they are unable to get to their assigned precincts. Let’s hope many voters heed the advice.

An even better long-term result of the new findings, however, would be one in which average North Carolinians of all political persuasions wake up to the reality of voter suppression and what it means to tell someone like Craig Thomas of Granville County that he can’t vote. Consider Thomas’ story:

Craig Thomas of Granville County was surprised to hear that he was not registered to vote even though he was before he left to serve with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan for 18 months. He went to an Early Voting site on April 30 and was told there was “no record of registration” for him, even though he returned to the same house in the same precinct after his deployment and he was never notified that his registration was being cancelled. Under the old law, Mr. Thomas could have used same-day registration to register at the Early Voting site and vote. Instead, he had to use a provisional ballot and it was not counted. He lost his chance to vote in the primary because of changes in the law.”

As Democracy NC executive director Bob Hall told Raleigh’s News & Observer:

When they (advocates for the changes) bring up cases of fraud, they’re talking about cases of three and four and five. This is 450 people who were denied the right to vote in one primary election where you have small turnout. We could have thousands in the general (election).”

And, of course, Hall might have added, that’s before the implementation of draconian new voter I.D. provisions scheduled to go into effect in 2016.

Next steps

Next week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit will hear an emergency appeal by civil rights groups challenging the provisions of the monster voting law that will, unless enjoined, suppress the vote in the November election as they did in May. Those who care about genuine democracy will be rooting for strong and prompt action from the court.

Beyond that, however, what’s needed even more than righteous and logical court rulings is a growing sense of outrage amongst people of good will of all political persuasions at the notion that laws were enacted in their name that would wrongfully suppress the votes of their fellow citizens. With any luck, the new Democracy NC report will help spur just such a reaction.