Restrictive NC voting bill sparks sit-in, talk of legal action by Justice Department

The July 24 sit-in by voting rights advocates at the office of N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis. This image is a still from the Story of America video below.

Conservatives in North Carolina said back in March that they would “slow-walk” a carefully considered voter ID bill through the legislative process to make sure it wouldn't hurt voters.

That slow approach is over, as the Republicans who control the state legislature are rushing through some of the strictest photo voter ID mandates this nation has seen. The move has sparked protests at home and talk of legal action by the U.S. Justice Department.

On Wednesday the North Carolina Senate approved a rewritten version of House Bill 589, omnibus election legislation that would end same-day registration, repeal pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, bifurcate presidential and state primary election days, chop a week off of early voting, and narrow the list of photo IDs citizens must carry to vote, including disqualifying college ID cards. The bill would also expand the ability of independent election observers to challenge voter qualifications.

State Sen. Bob Rucho (R-Mecklenburg), one of the bill's lead sponsors, said that the bill "re-establishes a level of confidence in the electoral process and also in our state government."

But that wasn't the case for the students who staged a sit-in at the office of House Speaker Thom Tillis last night after the Senate approved the bill. Twelve young people affiliated with the Forward Together Movement that's been protesting the legislature's ultraconservative agenda took over Tillis' office and said they would not leave until the voter bill was blocked.

One of the sit-in participants, Joshua Vincent, called the proposal one of "the most morally backwards voter suppression laws in the United States."

"We're not here to get arrested," said Vincent, "but to instruct Thom Tillis, an elected official, as is our constitutional right, to kill House Bill 589. We want him to meet with us, the moral majority of North Carolina, to explain to us why North Carolina is moving backwards and not forward.”

Vincent and five others were arrested by General Assembly police. Here's a video of the sit-in and arrests from

North Carolina students already had cause to worry about attacks on their voting rights. In May, 56 students from historically black Elizabeth City State University were purged from voter rolls for dubious reasons, including having a voter registration address that was different from their parents' address because they had registered at school.

A bill considered earlier in the legislative session would have imposed a $2,500 tax penalty on parents of students who register to vote at their college address. That proposal has since been dropped after public outcry.

Voting rights advocates are also concerned about the bill's provision expanding the power of election observers like tea party-affiliated True the Vote to challenge voters. The new bill allows any registered voter in the state to view any voter's registration records and challenge voter status at will. It also allows any registered voter to challenge another voter's qualification as he or she goes to vote, stating the challenger "may enter the voting enclosure to make the challenge."

Following the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision throwing out the formula in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act that determined which jurisdictions had to seek Justice Department pre-clearance for voting changes, North Carolina residents no longer have the same protections from the federal government to prevent such changes from disenfranchising people of color. While North Carolina was not covered as a whole by the pre-clearance requirement, 40 of its 100 counties were.

On Thursday, however, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the DOJ will "fully utilize the law's remaining sections to subject states to pre-clearance as necessary." The department plans to support a lawsuit in Texas brought by Democratic legislators and civil rights group against the state's redistricting plan.

Meanwhile, a former DOJ official said the department may also sue North Carolina if state lawmakers approve the new voter ID law. That's expected to happen before the legislature adjourns this week.