Voting Rights

Call to Action – The Reeb Project Blog

Reeb organizer Pam Coukos offers up some thoughts about how this Get Out the Early Vote strategy, developed by our partners at Democracy North Carolina, is a direct response to the Supreme Court’s refusal to recognize the reality of voter suppression – both in Shelby and in upholding the North Carolina voting restrictions last week.

Along with what many other organizations are doing on the ground in North Carolina right now, including Democracy NC, the NC NAACP and the Moral Mondays movement, we will do our part to help make sure that votes still get cast and get counted. We are going to turn out the very people this law was meant to suppress. We are going to throw a monkey wrench into the machinery of voter suppression so it does not work as intended.

It’s going to be the biggest Reeb Project action since February 8 trip to Raleigh. You won’t want to miss it. And read on for more about why:

The Supreme Court Got It Wrong. Twice. We Can Help Put it Right.

This past June, All Souls members and friends gathered on the steps of the Supreme Court, to mark a year to the day that the Court’s Shelby decision gutted the Voting Rights Act. The Court eliminated the portion of the law requiring certain states and localities with a history of racially discriminatory voting practices to get changes in the law “precleared.” Preclearance required affirmatively demonstrating the proposed new law did not have “the purpose or effect” of restricting voting rights on the basis of race. The Supreme Court said that was no longer necessary. We respectfully -- and musically -- dissented.

And then we posted it on YouTube.

In the wake of the Shelby decision, a rising tide of voter suppression accelerated – the Court’s ruling seemed to grant state legislators permission to openly embrace greater limitations on voting rights. Perhaps nowhere was that more brazen than in North Carolina, where within a few weeks the legislature unveiled and hastily passed a lengthy list of new restrictions including rolling back early voting, imposing new restrictions on voter registration and establishing a voter ID requirement set to take effect in 2016. Rev. Dr. William Barber II, head of the NC NAACP and the Moral Mondays movement, calls it a “monster” voter suppression law.

A panel of federal appeals court judges looked at the legislative history of these restrictions and concluded that “the facts of this case attest to the prophylactic success of Section 5’s preclearance requirements.” Preclearance was “the only reason House Bill 589’s sponsors did not reveal the ‘full bill’ to the public until after the Shelby County decision came down.”

The 4th Circuit judges then reviewed the “undisputed evidence” that at least two of these restrictions in particular risked illegally limiting the ability of African-Americans In North Carolina to exercise the right to vote in the upcoming election:

"Plaintiffs presented undisputed evidence showing that same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting were enacted to increase voter participation, that African American voters disproportionately used those electoral mechanisms, and that House Bill 589 restricted those mechanisms and thus disproportionately impacts African American voters."

The Court called it a "textbook example" of a Voting Rights Act violation (the part that still stands) and found that allowing these two changes risks "irreparable harm" and justifies an immediate injunction - a very high legal standard to meet. Legal challenges to other elements of the law will continue but the judges did not immediately block those other restrictions from going into effect.

But last week the Supreme Court reversed the 4th Circuit's ruling. This means all parts of the 2013 law stand for the upcoming election. Rev. Barber was quoted about why this matters:

“Tens of thousands of North Carolina voters, especially African-American voters, have relied on same-day registration, as well as the counting of ballots that were cast out of precinct, for years,” Barber said in a statement. “As the appeals court correctly concluded, eliminating these measures will cause irreparable harm of denying citizens their right to vote in the November election – a right that, once lost, can never be restored.

Despite the Supreme Court ruling, Barber said, the NAACP and other organizations plan to make “sure that, county by county, as many votes as possible are counted despite the barriers posed by the Supreme Court’s ruling.”

So the Supreme Court has now twice refused to accept the continuing reality of voter suppression laws and tactics in places like North Carolina – and twice prevented the legal system from acting to stop it.

Noted conservative jurist Richard Posner, a judge on a different federal court of appeals hearing a challenge to Wisconsin’s voter ID law, made a devastating case against the claim that state legislatures no longer need court oversight:

"As there is no evidence that voter-impersonation fraud is a problem, how can the fact that a legislature says it's a problem turn it into one? If the Wisconsin legislature says witches are a problem, shall Wisconsin courts be permitted to conduct witch trials? . . . There is only one motivation for imposing burdens on voting that are ostensibly designed to discourage voter-impersonation fraud, if there is no actual danger of such fraud, and that is to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burdens."

In contrast to the fact-free case for preventing voter fraud, Judge Posner cites the extensive evidence voter ID laws limit the ability of low-income voters to vote, and exceed the cost of the infamous racially discriminatory poll taxes in the Jim Crow era. Because of highly technical legal differences between the North Carolina and Wisconsin cases, the Supreme Court agreed to put Wisconsin’s voter ID restriction on hold. Indeed a dizzying array of judicial decisions over the last week has lurched back and forth between blocking and allowing voting restrictions in various states – making clear that no one can count on the courts to save the day and ensure access to the ballot.

Instead – as Rev. Barber said so clearly – it’s up to us.

Our partners at Democracy North Carolina are asking us to help them Get Out the Early Vote – specifically to make calls to as many Charlotte voters as possible to make sure they know Early Voting is open, where to go and how to get help getting there.

So why does encouraging Early Vote help? Thanks to the Supreme Court, voters must vote in their correct precinct or their vote will not count. Voters who are accustomed to voting at an out of precinct location and show up there on Election Day will be turned away, and may not have time to go to the correct location and vote. If these voters instead go to an Early Vote location, they can vote without worrying about being in their correct precinct.

Also voting early lowers the risk of disenfranchisement that may come about because of other provisions of the 2013 law. It may be harder to keep polls open late if there are problems or long lines. There are more likely to be challenges at the polls. There is more likely to be confusion about what the rules are, where and how you can vote. All of that means more risk that those voters targeted by this bill who try to vote for the first time on Election Day won't get to cast a ballot. If they come to Early Vote, and there is a problem, they will have another chance. If there is chaos and confusion on Election Day, they can avoid that by voting early.

So what does this mean for us? It means that our nonpartisan Early Vote GOTV program is critically important. We will be making thousands of phone calls to voters who are more likely to be turned away on election day because of the elimination of out of precinct voting, who may have other problems voting on election day, or may run into issues voting early that can be resolved in time to cast a vote on election day. We will be giving people the information they need to know when and how to vote, correcting misinformation, working on voting plans, coordinating with Democracy North Carolina's team on the ground to offer rides to the polls. We will be calling while the polls are open and when people can act immediately in response or work with us to plan to vote on another day when polls are open. Research shows that volunteer phone calls are one of the most effective ways to increase turnout, and that working to make a plan to vote really works. These phone calls will directly translate into more people who have the right to vote being able to exercise that right.

Remember there is direct disenfranchisement, by changing rules and limiting legal access, and indirect disenfranchisement, by providing confusing information or even outright disinformation about what the rules are, making it hard for people to even know when or how they are supposed to vote, or creating the misleading suggestion that you won't be welcome or will be turned away when you arrive. Making a direct person-to-person contact cuts through the noise and breaks down those barriers. It costs us only a few hours of time to make those calls that could mean the difference between this voter suppression law working as intended, and it failing to keep voters away from the polls.

We can't do anything about the fact that these terrible restrictions exist and will apply to the upcoming election. But we can take direct action to make sure that as many people as possible still get to vote in Mecklenburg County and we can focus our efforts on the community most impacted by that disenfranchisement.

All Souls has made over 2500 phone calls so far, in small phone banks of a few people hosted in people's homes. Imagine what we could do with 100 people calling in Pierce Hall. I want us to fill 100 shifts during early vote weekend October 25-26. That means we could make 5000 phone calls in a single weekend. And if we add the weekend of November 1, and maybe connect with a canvass operation run through our partner churches, we could even more of an impact.

We can draw a direct line from what the Supreme Court did in Shelby, to how that decision plays out right now in the next few weeks on the ground in Charlotte. But we don't have to stand for it.

The Supreme Court refused to enjoin this terrible law. So we are going to enjoin it ourselves. That's what the NAACP is talking about - make sure, not matter what the courts say about whether this law is allowed, that votes still get cast and get counted. We are going to turn out the very people this law was meant to suppress. We are going to throw a monkey wrench into the machinery of voter suppression so it does not work as intended.

This is about our legacy, embodied in our project name, and our obligation to honor it. Meet me there.