FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE,
April 1, 2014
ROCKY MOUNT, NC - Advocates, community leaders, legal and policy experts, activists and everyday North Carolinians made a powerful case for restoring expansive access to the ballot box on March 28 at the National Commission on Voting Rights organized by the NC NAACP, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the UNC Center for Civil Rights and other coalition partners in Rocky Mount, NC.
Held in the light of the Supreme Court's misguided decision to gut the Voting Rights Act nine months ago and in light of the sweeping voter suppression law passed two months later by extremists in the NC General Assembly, the fact-finding hearing detailed how North Carolina has changed from the state with the most expansive ballot access to one of the most restrictive.
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, president of the NC NAACP and architect of the Forward Together Moral Movement, opened the program at 9 am Friday by welcoming commissioners, witnesses and attendees from the general public.
The five commissioners who oversaw the full day of testimony and questioning were Barbara Arnwine, executive director and president of the Lawyers' Committee; former U.S. Congresswoman Eva Clayton; Raymond Pierce, the former Dean of the North Carolina Central University School of Law; Ellie Kinnaird, former state senator and electoral reform advocate; and David Harris, a long-term voting rights attorney.
"We welcome you here to Rocky Mount where the Voting Rights Act that was signed in 1965 created this area as a covered district - one of the 40 counties in North Carolina that was covered by the preclearance requirement of Section IV," Dr. Barber said. "Now no NC counties are covered by the full federal voter protections, and look what happened: extremists passed the worst voter suppression law we have seen since Jim Crow. North Carolina is the testing ground. This is today's Selma."
The Advancement Project, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the ACLU of North Carolina, Blueprint North Carolina and Democracy NC also served as co-organizers for today's National Commission on Voting Rights hearing to draw attention to the rollback of voting rights in the state.
Extremists in the NC General Assembly passed House Bill 589 two months after Shelby Co. v Holder removed North Carolina from federal preclearance protection and after only two days of public debate. The law drastically diminishes North Carolinians' access to the ballot by cutting popular early voting days nearly in half, eliminating same-day registration and pre-registration for 16- and 17-year olds, banning counties from counting provisional ballots mistakenly cast in the wrong precinct and putting in place a strict photo ID requirement that lays a heavy burden on poor, minority, elderly and rural voters. It also gives vigilante poll watchers greater latitude to challenge votes and gets rid of public financing in elections.
"At the time of H.B. 589's enactment, the General Assembly had before it evidence that African-Americans used early voting, same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct voting at higher rates than white voters," Dr. Barber said. "And yet these lawmakers eliminated or reduced those ballot access opportunities anyways. But this law hurts all people - black, white, Latino, students, the elderly, Democrats, Republicans, men, women, urban, rural."
The eight hours of testimony offered to the commissioners today gave full weight to Dr. Barber's point. Civil rights attorneys spoke about how H.B. 589's voter restrictions will hurt African American and Latino voters in particular; advocates for people with disabilities spoke about the heavy burden these unnecessary regulations place on their community - many of whom are unable to drive and lack the proper photo identification required under the new law.
Students decried these blatant attempts to cut back on early voting and same-day registration - two voting opportunities that they and their peers rely heavily upon. Lawyers who work with rural communities drew attention to counties that would now require people without access to a car to travel sometimes more than 50 miles to the nearest DMV office. And everyday voters expressed concern over the new freedoms granted to vigilante poll-watching groups to challenge votes and intimidate voters.
The NC NAACP, which is represented by the Advancement Project, Kirkland & Ellis, LLP and a team of local civil-rights lawyers including Professor Irv Joyner from NCCU School of Law, is fighting the voter suppression law in federal courts. On March 27, in a great victory for North Carolina's voters, U.S. Magistrate Joi Peake ruled that NC legislators could not claim a blanket immunity from turning over any documents related to H.B. 589 to the NC NAACP legal team as a part of this challenge.
"You cannot engage in passing laws that undermine the rights of people and then claim immunity from detailing the reason and rationale of your actions," Dr. Barber said. "We have said all along these actions must be examined in the light of the constitution and in the light of full disclosure."
Without a robust Section V, the burden for challenging voting changes like those enacted by H.B. 589 is placed squarely on these marginalized communities - many of whom lack the hundreds of thousands of dollars and the access to scores of experienced civil rights attorneys needed to bring these lawsuits effectively. The NC NAACP remains committed to fighting for a full restoration of Section V of the Voting Rights Act that includes all Southern states, including North Carolina.
"To suggest that there is not enough racism in North Carolina, in Virginia, in Alabama, in South Carolina where they still fly the Confederate flag, to have preclearance is just wrong," Dr. Barber said. "To suggest a Voting Rights fix that is less than what we won the Edmund Pettus Bridge is wrong. These voting changes need to be examined on the front end, not after millions have lost their right to vote and have say in the policies that impact their lives."
Other highlights from this hearing include:
- Former state senator Ellie Kinnaird: "It is great sadness to see North Carolina retreating from the most expansive access to the ballot to the most obstructions. For me and others who worked to expand that access, it is a personal loss."
- Irving Joyner, professor at NCCU School of Law and NC NAACP Legal Redress Chair: "From 1901 to 1992, North Carolina did not have an African American representative in the US Congress. This is recent history. It resulted from voter suppression. It resulted from voter intimidation."
- Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project: "During my 30 years practicing as a civil rights attorney, I have not seen such widespread attempts to disenfranchise than I have seen in North Carolina. North Carolina is the star example for why we need the Voting Rights Act. This law was crafted with surgical precision to go after the votes of people of color."
- Chris Brook, Legal Director of the ACLU of North Carolina: "This law establishes a tradition where we do not respect the vote and where we do not respect the vote in communities of color."
- Keith Rivers: "There are numerous rural counties without Division of Motor Vehicle Departments that issue driver's license and state identifications cards. For example, Gates County has a mobile unit that comes one day a month with times that are during the average person's work day. In other counties without DMVs, the dates and times are not even posted on the DMVs web page."