Why you should care
It’s our most sacred democratic right.
OZY was first to this story, putting you ahead of the curve. View More OZY Originals
The gospel singers are there, but the “Souls to the Polls” Sunday service inevitably feels different. A civil rights hero might show up. The pastor’s sermon explicitly links spiritual duties with civic ones. And then, with echoes of the last “amen” ringing in their ears, the faithful rise from their vestibules and march toward the vans idling in the parking lot — or all the way to the polling place, if it’s nearby. As practiced in cities throughout the South, Souls to the Polls is a festive occasion. But these days, it’s endangered.
Since 2013, seven states have tightened up laws around voting — shortening early voting periods, eliminating same-day registration and requiring a photo ID, for instance — and in some of them, Souls to the Polls hangs in the balance. Proponents of the restrictions say they aim at eliminating voter fraud and “restoring confidence in government,” as North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis explained when his state passed new voting legislation. But civil rights advocates consider tighter voting rules just vote suppression by another name. “I think they’re afraid of more Obamas getting elected to office,” says the Rev. Dr. Earl Johnson of the Martin Street Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, of the state legislature.
That, in a nutshell, is the basis for a series of lawsuits challenging North Carolina’s new voting rules, which have been rolled into one federal case set to go to trial this month. The plaintiffs, which include the North Carolina NAACP, the League of Women Voters and a host of African-American churches, are seeking to prove that the law’s intent is to disenfranchise minorities, who disproportionately participated in Souls to the Polls and took advantage of other lenient voter rules. And this is just one of a handful of challenges snaking through legal systems, heading inexorably, it seems, toward a politically and racially charged showdown at the Supreme Court. If all plays out as expected, the court will take up one of these cases this fall, setting it up for a decision next summer, on the eve of the 2016 presidential election.
Souls to the Polls is a relatively recent innovation, but it’s one of the most effective mobilization tools of the past decade. Civil rights advocates credit it with everything from ramping up voter turnout, especially in the South, to making President Obama the first Democratic candidate to carry North Carolina in more than 30 years. But in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively struck down a central provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, freeing 15 states, including North Carolina, from restrictions on their voting laws, thanks to histories of racial discrimination. The Shelby County decision, as it’s known, provoked an uproar from Democrats and African-American leaders across the country. In his searing remarks in the shadow of Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge this March, marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights march there, President Barack Obama said the legislation’s future was uncertain, subject to political whims. “How can that be?” he lamented.
Only a couple months after the Supreme Court decision, North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature passed its new voter law, which eliminated same-day registration and shrank the early voting period. Tar Heel state Rep. Virginia Foxx argues the provisions are just “taking the law back to the way it used to be.” Scant evidence exists of widespread voter fraud, but supporters of the new law also cited administrative headaches and lack of capacity as reasons to tighten voter requirements.
Just a decade ago, North Carolina’s legislature was intent on expand voting procedures, adopting measures like extended early voting, provisional voting for those who showed up at the wrong precinct, and same-day registration during early voting. Turnout jumped. African-American voting, in particular, surged between 1996 and 2004 and, with the chance to elect the country’s first black president, topped white turnout in 2008, helping Barack Obama eke out a victory in the state. To a man, the progressives fighting North Carolina’s voter law told OZY they believed it was retribution for helping to send Obama to the White House.
Conservatives dispute that, and some argue that the connection between events like Souls to the Polls and turnout is “mythological,” as Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, puts it. Others see something outright nefarious in challenges to the new voter laws — an attempt to gum up the electoral works. North Carolina’s early voting has come with a sharp increase in people voting at the wrong precincts, according to Susan Myrick, of the conservative Civitas Institute. “We knew that it was done on purpose,” she says. People like Myrick, who support requirements like photo IDs to vote, have public opinion on their side — polls have consistently found that as many as three-quarters of likely U.S. voters support ID measures.
To win their case, plaintiffs will have to show that the new voter laws intended to disenfranchise African-Americans and other minorities who packed the polls. Intent is tough to prove — in court it will likely be a murky tangle of racial history, recent election statistics and attempts to demonstrate personal, mostly internal motivations. Among those whose emails have been subpoenaed: Susan Myrick.
Few experts are willing to wager whether plaintiffs will convince the Supreme Court that politicians in North Carolina (or Texas or Wisconsin) are intentionally discriminating against minorities. Either way, the decision will reverberate on Election Day 2016, one that will usher the Obamas out of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and feature plenty of post-mortems about the state of race in America.