By Allison Riggs, Guest Writer
On July 4, as we celebrate the founding of this country, and the democratic principles on which it is based, the holiday provides an important reminder that the rights central to our democracy—including the right to vote—can and will be trampled upon without constant vigilance. Politicians try to reshape the electorate to maintain their own power. Too much blood has been shed for that right to vote to let that happen. Here in our state, the last five years have seen an all-out attack on the ability of North Carolinians to participate freely and easily in the political process, and our ability as voters to elect the candidates we choose—rather than the other way around. The General Assembly’s attack on voting rights has been wide-ranging—from overt, statewide laws that making every stage of the electoral process more burdensome for voters to meaningfully participate, to more subtle changes, sometimes focused on redistricting plans for just city or county elected bodies. These changes all act to keep voters unengaged and at home on Election Day, when North Carolina needs the opposite.
Legal challenges to these unconstitutional actions are starting to bear some fruit. Earlier this year, a federal court struck down two congressional districts as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. Voters in the state thus had to participate in a special primary election in June to nominate party candidates under the remedial plan, and those remedial plans will be in effect this November. So if you have not voted since 2014, your district may have changed! And a federal court on Friday struck down two laws dramatically restructuring the Wake County Board of Education and Board of County Commissioners as unconstitutional. Those plans created districts of dramatically different sizes, thus making some voters’ votes count more than others, for illegitimate partisan reasons. There are many more challenges to state and local redistricting plans pending.
But gerrymandering has not been the only tactic used—the General Assembly has also engaged in substantial voter suppression efforts. One of the more high-profile assaults came in the form of a 2013 elections omnibus law that changed pretty much every aspect of how elections are conducted here in North Carolina. On the campaign finance side, the law increased contribution limits and weakened disclosure requirements, thus increasing the influence of money in politics. On the election administration side, the law cut a week from early voting (a week in which nearly a million people voted in the 2012 election), repealed same day registration (which allowed voters to register to vote during the early voting period), and imposed a strict photo identification requirement for voting, among many other onerous changes. The alleged fears of fraud that motivated the election administration changes apparently did not bleed over into fears of political impropriety or quid pro quo on the campaign finance side, ironically. The strict photo ID requirement, in particularly, is likely to have a disproportionately negative impact on women in this state. A 2013 study by the North Carolina State Board of Elections showed that women represented 67% of the over 300,000 voters who likely lacked pictures IDs. At some point, the General Assembly will wake up and stop trying to make it harder for people to vote and to fairly elect their candidates of choice, but until they do, lawsuits won’t be enough to stem the tide. The best course of action is to keep voting. Every election matters, and those that are elected must be held accountable!
Allison Riggs is a senior attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham, NC. She has lived and worked in North Carolina for over 7 years. Her work focuses primarily on voting rights advocacy and litigation.