Fighting the ‘biggest wave of voter suppression’ since 1965

Khalil Abdullah | 8/29/2013, 6 a.m.

The same morning Hillary Clinton was using her highly visible stature at the recent American Bar Association convention to call for increased protection for Americans’ right to vote, N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory signed HB 589, a law that strips all residents of same-day voter registration, shortens early voter registration and imposes onerous voter ID requirements.

“We view the attacks on voting rights in North Carolina to be among the most extreme and regressive we’ve seen in the country,” said Eddie Hailes, managing director and general counsel for Advancement Project, a civil rights organization that works on clearing barriers to the ballot box.

In a statement announcing the organization’s lawsuit against North Carolina, Advancement Project co-director Penda Hair noted that voters of color and young people would be the hardest hit by the new restrictions.

The law Gov. McCrory enacted will end the pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-old future voters and increases the likelihood of incidents of intimidation at the polls by allowing voters to be challenged by a registered voter from the same county. In the past, those challenges were limited to voters from the same precinct.

“Right now in 2013, we’re having a repeat performance of 2012,” said Kathy Culliton-Gonzalez, director of voter protection for Advancement Project. Voter ID restrictions, proposed by 24 states in 2013, head the list as the most popular form of legislative fiat. Other initiatives run the gamut from reducing early voting days — like in North Carolina — to voter purges.

“Even though this is not a presidential election year, this Supreme Court decision [“Shelby County v. Holder”] has opened the door to more and more restrictive voting changes,” Culliton-Gonzalez said. “Yes, it’s better than the ‘60s — there’s not as much violence involved in these battles of voting rights — but we’ve seen the biggest wave of voter suppression in the form of modern-day poll taxes and literacy tests since the Voting Rights Act was passed.”

Fighting back against voter suppression

Voting rights advocates are responding in four main ways. First, litigation continues to be the critical bulwark against the implementation of unfair voting practices, but, as Culliton-Gonzalez notes, litigation is expensive and is sure to test the resources for organizations like hers, the ACLU, Brennan Center for Justice, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Leadership Conference, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and others that champion voting rights.

Second, public demonstrations and civil disobedience could raise public awareness about the unjust or disparate impact of newly proposed or enacted laws. Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of NAACP, had some success in rallying protesters against HB 589 and other legislative actions at Moral Monday demonstrations each Monday in Raleigh.

His organization is continuing to hold Moral Monday forums outside of the state capitol and is planning demonstrations in 13 of the state’s congressional districts on Aug. 28 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.

Whether the intensity and discipline of the North Carolina protests can be replicated in other states remains to be seen. Yet other veterans of the Civil Rights era are encouraging a national movement for the restoration and protection of voting rights.