Apparently, it wasn't enough for the state of North Carolina to pass the most far-reaching and extreme voting law in the nation. The radical rollback of voting rights, signed into law by Governor Pat McCrory a few weeks ago, cuts a week from early voting, eliminates same-day voter registration, creates a strict photo ID requirement (which specifically prohibits college IDs from being accepted for voting), bans the pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, and expands the ability to challenge voters, among other sweeping provisions. Collectively, these changes make it harder to vote for people of color, students, seniors, people with disabilities and low-income North Carolinians. Yet the state did not stop there.
Now two county election boards have employed a top-down approach to take over the voting process at the local level. They are specifically taking aim at student voting.
Just days after the state's restrictive voting law took hold, election officials in Watauga and Pasquotank counties announced policies to drastically curb student voting. First, the local elections board of Watauga County, home to Appalachian State University, voted to eliminate an early voting and general election polling place on campus. Now students seeking to cast a ballot will have to travel to an off-campus voting site that is absurdly difficult to reach: inaccessible by public transportation, and over a mile from campus, alongside a 45 mph road with no sidewalk. Worse still, in the Watauga County election board's decision to condense what used to be three county polling places into one, this single precinct -- which was designed for 1,500 voters and only has 35 parking spaces -- will have to serve 9,300 voters.
Incredibly, students at Elizabeth City State University, a historically black college in North Carolina's Pasquotank County, faced an even harsher attack on their right to vote. The ambush began when Elizabeth City senior Montravias King, who has lived and voted in Pasquotank County since he started attending school there in 2009, decided to run for city council. After Pete Gilbert, the Pasquotank County Republican Party chairman, argued that a college campus is not a valid residency for holding public office, the county elections board agreed and disqualified King from the ballot. Since North Carolina's requirements to run for office are the same as those for being allowed to vote, Gilbert subsequently announced plans to challenge the voting eligibility of Elizabeth City students -- a tactic that could have put him on track to disenfranchise the entire school.
After widespread outcry, the State Board of Elections stepped in, reversing the local board's decision and allowing King to run for office using his school address. In a disappointing split decision, however, the state board also upheld Watauga County's decision to close the voting site at Appalachian State University.
It's no surprise that state and local officials are focusing on youth voters, who are perennial targets when politicians manipulate election rules for their own advantage. It's also no coincidence that black students are being specifically targeted, when North Carolina's African-American voter turnout exceeded the rate of whites last year, with 70.2 percent of black registered voters casting a ballot. The multifaceted plan here, from a statewide voter suppression law to the chilling actions of individual county election boards, is to make it harder for them to vote. It's an ugly and arrogant strategy that threatens to fundamentally change democracy in North Carolina. These politicians will not get away with it.
Although the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder in June -- which essentially struck down the Voting Rights Act's Section 5 requirement for North Carolina, and other states with histories of discriminatory voting laws, to submit voting changes for federal review -- freed the state to unleash its undemocratic policies, the voting rights community is doubling down to fight back. Before the ink had even dried on North Carolina's new voting law, on the same day Advancement Project and other organizations filed suit against it.
Elizabeth City's plan to challenge the residency of college students blatantly and illegally defies the 1979 Supreme Court ruling of Symm v. United States, which ruled that students have the constitutional right to register and vote where they go to school. The state elections board was right to stop it. And the thousands of North Carolina citizens who swarmed the statehouse for 13 weeks during the last legislative session, in "Moral Monday" demonstrations led by the North Carolina NAACP to protest these kinds of partisan attacks on voting, are still fired up. Last week thousands more showed up to 13 simultaneous rallies across the state, letting officials know in no uncertain terms that voting time is coming -- and they will be ready.
As the attacks on voting in North Carolina get more vicious, understand that the fight is far from over. Even with the loss of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Advancement Project and our partners will continue swinging back with other tools to protect the right to vote. We will not rest until every effort to curb the fundamental right to have a voice in our democracy is defeated.
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