The North Carolina Context
In North Carolina, knowledge of and opposition to those who would narrow voting rights is of great importance; in part because of the history of voter suppression and oppression in North Carolina. Recent events in North Carolina also provide a context for this current contest, and throw the battle lines on this issue into sharp relief.
In 2006, the North Carolina NAACP led the creation of a broad coalition aimed at seeking necessary reforms from the state government. Known as “Historic Thousands on Jones Street,” or HKonJ, the coalition has grown to include 125 different NAACP units in the state plus 140 other social justice organizations. Its first annual mobilization in February 2009 attracted approximately 3,500 marchers, and its demonstration in 2012 drew over 15,000 individuals. Most significantly for this report, HKonJ has changed the shape of North Carolina’s political and social life.
Among HKonJ’s many achievements, it won a dollar an hour increase in the state’s minimum wage that the Governor signed in 2007. In 2010 it won passage of the Racial Justice Act, which gave death row inmates an avenue to challenge their sentence if race was a significant factor in the sentencing. Although there were a couple of legislative attempts to repeal and revise this statute, the Governor vetoed them. HKonJ also successfully pushed the legislature to pass a same-day registration for early voting measure in 2007.
As a result, in the 2008 election, North Carolina recorded the highest percentage increase of voter turnout of any state in the country, with a 9.4% increase.
In response, the Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature made several attempts to restrict the vote. In 2009, HB 430 “Voter Identification” was introduced, but never gained traction. Following GOP gains in 2010, a strict new bill requiring photo identification to vote was introduced in March 2011 as HB 351, the deceptively named “Restore Confidence in Government” Act.
The nonpartisan voter advocacy group Democracy North Carolina noted that the bill could affect more than 450,000 North Carolina residents. State officials also added that more than 550,000 residents have no identification at all, and many don’t have the money or time to get to a Department of Motor Vehicles branch and obtain one.
Nevertheless, the bill was ratified by the legislature on June 16, 2011. Gov. Bev Perdue, with the support of HKonJ, vetoed the bill on June 23, 2011. “This bill, as written, will unnecessarily and unfairly disenfranchise many eligible and legitimate voters,” Perdue wrote in her veto announcement. In her statement, she also noted, “There was a time in North Carolina history when the right to vote was enjoyed only by some citizens rather than by all. That time is past, and we should not revisit it.”
On July 26, 2011, the House attempted to override the Governor veto, but failed to reach the three-fifths majority necessary. In a party line vote, 68 Republicans voted to override the veto, while 51 Democrats voted against the measure. Yet again, in 2012, the bill rose from the dead and it was re-introduced in May, and a move was made to get a modified version passed.
Then in June, at the height of final attempt to craft a bill that might override Gov. Perdue’s veto, North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis took time to conference with several of the leading voices in support of the voter ID law.
Among those in attendance:
William Gheen of the nativist group ALIPAC. Gheen has suggested that “illegal and violent” “extra political activities” might be the only way to save “white America” from “Dictator Barack Obama.”
David DeGerolamo of the Tea Party group NC Freedom. In a 2010 interview DeGerolamo told another Tea Party leader, “I want the 14th Amendment repealed.”
Donna Yowell of Feet to the Fire (who would go on to be the state coordinator for the True the Vote voter suppression efforts).
Ron Woodward of the anti-immigrant group, NC Listen.
James and Maurine Johnson of the grassroots nativist outfit NC FIRE.
Despite this push by Tea Party and nativist groups, enough votes to override a veto threat couldn’t be wrangled before the end of the session. HKonJ played a significant role in these events, providing the political energy to protect voting rights.
Nevertheless, these issues remain hotly contested. North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis told the state’s delegation to the Republican National Convention in Tampa that if things go well for Republicans this fall, a voter ID bill likely will become law next year. The Republican candidate for governor, Pat McCrory has also added that if elected, he would sign a similar bill.