In North Carolina, we need to protect everyone’s freedom to vote

04.26.2021 / BY BOB PHILLIPS

RALEIGH – Voting is the right by which all our other rights are protected, to paraphrase Thomas Paine. Equal access to the ballot box is the bedrock foundation of our democracy and vital to the health of our nation.

It’s a simple, powerful concept – every American’s voice should be heard and their vote counted. Yet it’s been a struggle to achieve that vision, even now.

We know the shameful history of voter suppression that still reverberates today. We remember Black and Brown heroes who have courageously stood up against racist policies that withheld voting rights from people of color. We remember brave women who broke down barriers to the ballot. We recall the young people who advocated to lower the voting age, recognizing the injustice it was for 18-year-olds to fight for our country, but be deprived a say in our elections.

As more Americans have participated at the polls, our democracy has grown stronger. And the evidence is clear: when voting is made more accessible, more people participate. That benefits everyone. We saw that in 2020 when North Carolina had record high voter turnout, reaching 75%.

Our state’s historic climb in turnout is due in large part to important policies enacted in the early 2000s, like no-excuse absentee voting, expanded early voting and same-day voter registration. These pro-voter innovations survived attacks by partisan politicians in recent years thanks to North Carolinians standing together to defend broad access to the polls. As shown last fall, making voting more convenient has helped all voters – Democrats, Republicans and independents alike.

Now, we’re at a crossroads. There are some politicians who want to take us backward, who want to impose unnecessary and discriminatory barriers that would undercut our freedom to vote, especially for Black and Brown voters and young people. We see that with the more than 250 anti-voter bills that have cropped up like weeds around the nation, including here in North Carolina.

At the same time, we have an opportunity to enact pro-democracy solutions that protect voting rights, encourage participation in elections and put people above politics.

That’s the choice: do we want to suppress voting, or do we want to promote voting?

The answer should be easy – we want to protect everyone’s freedom to vote. Any politician who feels differently, who wants to stop people from voting, should take a long look at themselves and ask why they dread being held accountable by the people they are supposed to serve.

Here’s some good news. The For the People Act has passed the U.S. House and awaits consideration by the U.S. Senate. This common-sense proposal would protect crucial election reforms like early voting, and it would implement proven, pro-voter policies such as automatic voter registration. We need Senators Tillis and Burr to step up for all North Carolinians and support the For the People Act.

In our state legislature, there have also been several pro-democracy bills introduced that deserve the support of lawmakers. The Fair Maps Act (House Bill 437) would end gerrymandering for good by establishing a citizens redistricting commission, making sure voters have a voice in choosing their representatives.

House Bill 446 (Safeguarding Voting Rights) would help voter registration, bolster early voting, improve accessibility for voting by mail and make Election Day a state holiday. House Bill 542 and Senate Bill 716 (Fix Our Democracy) would increase voting access, limit the influence of big money in politics and boost transparency in government. The legislature should pass these bills.

A year ago, North Carolina Republican and Democratic lawmakers worked together to enact legislation that made voting by mail more accessible amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than imposing new barriers to casting a ballot, legislative leadership should build on the success of last year’s election and support pro-voting proposals.

We must not turn back the clock on voting rights. Instead, let’s move forward, ensuring that every voter is able to fully participate in our elections. And when more people participate, our democracy wins.

Bob Phillips is executive director of Common Cause NC, a nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy.

Fighting for Black Lives After the Chauvin Trial

sheets with sign black lives matter on wall

Two weeks ago, when Derek Chauvin was convicted on three counts of murdering George Floyd, I was both surprised and grateful: Maybe we’d finally start holding police accountable for violence against Black people. But my momentary hope was tempered by my memories of similar hopes for tackling gun violence after Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Pulse, and Las Vegas. Almost two decades past Sandy Hook, there’s been little progress despite tremendous efforts by many people and organizations.

The Chauvin conviction was bracketed by the police shooting Adam Toledo in Chicago not a week earlier, by the police shooting Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio, on the day of Chauvin’s conviction, and by the police shooting of Andrew Brown, Jr., right here in North Carolina. This is nothing new: Police violence against Blacks has been ongoing for centuries. Indeed, as the historian Jill Lepore explains in her article “The Invention of the Police” (The New Yorker, July 20, 2020 issue), police violence has been a constant of American life starting with enforcement of slavery, evolving to union busting, enforcement of Jim Crow, and controlling immigration. The history is long and sordid.

What makes Derek Chauvin’s case almost unique is that the overwhelming video evidence showing him murdering George Floyd came to light at the same time that the Black Lives Matters movement has made stark the depths of our national racism. Without the vivid video evidence, the heated political environment, and police chief Medaria Arradondo’s testimony against Chauvin, Floyd’s murder would likely have been swept under the rug like so many before it.

But in the Brown case in Elizabeth City, the only video evidence comes from police body and dash cams. So far, that evidence has been suppressed using the 2016 law signed by then-governor (and now Senate candidate Pat McCrory) that prohibits release of such video without a judge’s consent, which Superior Court Judge Jeff Foster has delayed for 30-45 days.

Sweeping police violence against Black people under the rug is the norm. Besides suppressing evidence, we’ve seen authorities and police union leaders around the nation sidestep accountability by blaming the victim and by blatantly lying. The Supreme Court’s doctrine of qualified immunity makes convictions, even with evidence, nearly impossible. Vivid, disturbing, in-your-face video footage seems to be the only game changer, much like television broadcasts of the 1965 Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge made the Voting Rights Act possible.

While video evidence of unjustified police violence against Black people will help in the fight to reform policing policy and accountability, I fear that this, too, like the fight to control guns, will be a decades-long fight. 

There’s no easy answer. The BLM movement is an essential part of the fight and we, as Progressives, support it wholeheartedly. We must also fight to change the national context. This fight is not just about police violence but about all of the forces in our society that keep people “in their places”, suppressing human dignity and economic opportunity with underfunded public education, sub-subsistence minimum wages, lack of affordable housing, healthcare and child care, and unjustified levels of incarceration.

Fighting these battles is what Progressives are all about. Please join us in the work.

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