As the General Assembly prepares to conclude the 2014 short session, it’s now clear that lawmakers will adjourn without taking action to restore the voting access policies, public financing options, limits on campaign contributions, and disclosure requirements that were stripped in last year’s omnibus voting law. Indeed, as the session winds down, lawmakers and their lawyers are defending their 2013 actions before a federal judge in Winston-Salem in a constitutional challenge brought by civil rights groups.
This is extremely unfortunate because such a restoration would be good for voters, candidates, the legislators themselves and for North Carolina.
Before the advent of early voting, same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting a few years’ back, voter participation had dropped to under 40%, and North Carolina was among the worst 12 states in that category. After adopting these provisions we ranked #1 in the nation for increased turnout from 2004 to 2008, and we finally ranked among the top 12 states for turnout in 2012.
Before his recent passing, Dr. Vincent Harding, a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and leader of the struggle fifty years ago for voting rights, never tired of saying, that the job of every American is to build “a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, participatory, democratic society.”
And, when it comes to building that kind of democracy, he observed, “We are a developing nation.” We haven’t been at it very long by historical standards—just over 200 years. He agreed with Justice Thurgood Marshall that our country started with slave owners and slave traders who knew very little about building a democracy. So, “every generation since then has got to do the job that they couldn’t do, that they weren’t qualified to do. We have to build that democracy that does not yet exist.”
Sadly, this is the opportunity that state legislators have missed again this year. And, make no mistake; there is much they could have done to build that democracy.
Our legislators could have restored the week of early voting, including Sunday voting. This would reduce long lines on Election Day and make it easier (or even possible) for many to vote – especially African Americans who made up 36% of those who voted during the first week of early voting and 43% of those who voted the first Sunday in 2012. Many working people find it difficult or impossible to take off work to vote and we need them.
They could have restored Same Day Registration and thereby have made it easier for 33% more young people and 34% more African Americans to vote who used that opportunity in 2012. We need those young people and African Americans of every age.
They could have restored pre-registration for high school aged youth – a change that would introduce more of our young people, including large numbers of African American and Latino youth to one of the most important obligations of citizenship.
Legislators could have restored restrictions on the number of partisan poll observers and on voters who can challenge other voters – thus allowing more people to vote at sites free of any hint of intimidation.
They could have restored judicial public financing which allows more middle class, women, Black, and Latino candidates to be competitive. We need those middle class people, women, African Americans, Latinos, and others on the benches across North Carolina.
They could have restored limits on individual and corporate donations to level the playing field for voters and candidates.
They could have restored the “Stand By Your Ad” and disclosure requirements that made for better informed voters.
Last, but not least, they could have restored the voter attestation system that has worked well in the past and dropped the new and problematic voter ID requirement that poses an unnecessary obstacle for seniors, women, the working poor, and a third of African American voters. We need the voices of everyone, especially those facing challenges in our state—seniors, women, African Americans and those struggling at or below the poverty line.
Had lawmakers taken these actions they would have made it much more likely that North Carolinians would elect a legislature that looks more like the population of the state—racially, ethnically, culturally, religiously, and socio-economically. That kind of legislature would be much more likely to win the people’s confidence, trust, and consent—all necessary for good and effective government.
Unfortunately, for now, legislators remain bent upon restricting voting rights. Let’s hope the courts and the public at-large deliver strong and negative verdicts on this stance in the near future.
Stephen Boyd is the Easley Professor of Religion & Director, Religion and Public Engagement at Wake Forest University.