After loss in court, NC voting rights activists turn attention to mobilizing in the streets
Following a federal judge's decision last week to deny a request by the U.S. Department of Justice and civil rights groups to block North Carolina's restrictive new voting law from being enforced during this November's election, voting rights activists are turning their attention from the ongoing legal battle in the courtroom to organizing voters to turn out despite the new rules.
"We will not falter in our efforts to mobilize until this extreme law is completely repealed," said Rev. William Barber of the N.C. NAACP, one of the civil rights groups that sought the injunction. "Our movement against this voter suppression law is built on the legacy of those who have testified before us, with their feet and blood, to fight for equal rights in North Carolina and the nation."
On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas D. Schroeder declined to issue a preliminary injunction that would have prevented restrictive provisions in the voting law passed last year by the Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory (R) from taking effect during this year's general election. Those provisions include a shorter early voting period and an end to same-day registration, out-of-precinct voting and straight-party voting. The law also includes a provision requiring voters to show photo ID beginning in 2016. The legislature passed the law shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act that required federal preclearance for changes to election laws in states with a history of voter discrimination, most of them in the South.
But in good news for the plaintiffs, Schroeder also rejected the state of North Carolina's request to dismiss the lawsuit altogether. The trial over the law's constitutionality is expected to begin next summer.
The plaintiffs suing to overturn the law have offered evidence that the law disproportionately affects African-American voters. In 2012, for example, 70 percent of African Americans who cast ballots in North Carolina used early voting. African Americans are also more likely than other groups to use same-day registration. However, Schroeder ruled that there wasn't enough evidence that the law would cause "irreparable harm" if it remained in effect for the November mid-terms.
Barber disagrees. "If one elderly or young person, black, white or Latino decides she won't vote because of the shorter early voting weeks, the elimination of same-day voting, the confusing ballots without straight party voting and other sections of this voter suppression law that are still standing because of today's court decision, that is indeed an irreparable harm," he said.
The plaintiffs are considering whether to appeal the denial of the preliminary injunction to the Fourth Circuit. Penda Hair, an attorney with the Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization that's involved in the North Carolina lawsuit, said they expect to make that decision this week.
Irving Joyner, a law professor at N.C. Central University in Durham and an attorney for the N.C. NAACP, said during an Aug. 11 telephone press conference about the ruling that African Americans "will have to work harder" because of the law and "will bear a disproportionate burden" when it comes to getting people out to vote. But, he added, the NAACP is prepared to meet the challenge.
"We are committed to continuing the fight in the courts," Joyner said, "and we will redouble our efforts to continue the fight in the streets."
The N.C. NAACP has organizers working across the state to register people to vote and to ensure they turn out this fall. Beginning Aug. 22, the group, which has also been a leader of the Moral Monday protests, will hold what's being billed as a "Moral Week of Action" with daily rallies and marches culminating in a mass rally for voting rights and voter mobilization in Raleigh on Aug. 28 -- the 51st anniversary of the March on Washington. The "Vote Your Dreams, Not Your Fears Rally" will be held at 5:30 p.m. outside the state legislature. Voter registration canvasses will take place after each day's events, and people unable to attend the actions in Raleigh are being encouraged to hold their own local voter registration campaigns.
There's also a statewide campaign underway called Operation Jumpstart the Vote that's helping citizens register, get photo IDs, and understand the changes in state election law. That effort is being coordinated by the election watchdog group Democracy North Carolina, which has been involved in the Moral Monday movement and voter registration efforts.
"We're very confident going into November," said the NAACP's Joyner. He added that the court's decision against blocking the voting law "will fuel resentment and anger" that will help drive people to the polls.
Sue is the editorial director of Facing South and the Institute for Southern Studies.