Nancy Shakir, an organizer with Democracy North Carolina, started her presentation to a diverse room full of people at Little Rock AME Zion Church on July 23 with a brief, but straightforward, American history lesson.
"When you think of 450 years of indoctrination in this culture, which says to some people, 'You are superior, you are the norm,' and then at the same time you're saying to other groups of people, 'You are inferior, you're not quite human and you're not the norm,' then you can understand the mentality that says, 'You don't have the right to vote, you're not really citizens.'"
The group of about 25 people braved the first rainy evening in some time to come to the church's fellowship hall and discuss voting rights, or lack thereof, in North Carolina.
"I put that out there because we don't like to touch that, but we have to touch it if we're going to solve the problems we face in the United States," Shakir said.
The meeting came in the midst of a federal lawsuit being tried in Winston-Salem, filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, the North Carolina NAACP, Democracy North Carolina and other organizations challenging a voter suppression law — North Carolina House Bill 589 — passed in 2013 that they say was designed to systematically reduce voting access for the lower class and especially people of color.
Among other manipulations of the voting systems, the bill cut early voting dates by a full week, eliminated same-day registration, rejected out-of-precinct ballots from being counted and eliminated a pre-registration program for 16- and 17-year-olds.
The purpose of Thursday's meeting was to begin educating residents, regardless of the trial's outcome, on the importance of voting locally and what they need to know to exercise their right to vote while navigating any obstacles. Charlotte residents will hit the polls (organizers hope) to choose a new mayor in November, as well as participate in a city council election that currently sees all but two seats being contested.
Earlene Lyde, president of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, also addressed the group about the importance of voting on education issues. Voters will decide on three CMS Board of Education seats this November.
Lyde, who also teaches history at West Charlotte High School, thanked the local NAACP chapter for organizing the meeting, and spoke to the importance of fighting H.B. 589 until all of its restrictions are repealed.
"The NAACP is taking proactive steps to make sure the intentions of that law are not realized," Lyde said. "The NAACP waits for no one to give it permission to do its work. It never lets unjust laws divert it from its mission. To me, that's what tonight is all about."
Lyde emphasized that, despite what restrictions the state may enforce, it is critical to the future of Charlotte's children that people pay attention to local government and how these elected officials make important decisions regarding the county's schools, including an upcoming board decision on a new superintendent.
"We all know that quality public education is the great equalizer out there for our most fragile young people," Lyde said. "We should be ashamed that we have allowed this attack on public education to make us forget what our forefathers endured to ensure our access to a good education."
In the crowd that night was April Marten, with Charlotte Neighbors for Strong Community Schools. She agrees that voters must keep schools in mind when considering the issues the city faces.
"I believe it starts with education," Marten told Creative Loafing. "We really haven't done much to deal with the conditions of our schools at this time, which are still segregated. There are deep inequities. I have visited all of the schools myself to see it up close and personal, and it's appalling."
The discussion soon changed from young children to young adults, as Shakir discussed a generational gap between millenials and the activists that paved the way for them.
Shakir, who said her first organizing efforts came during John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign and changed her life forever, said she meets many young people who see no reason to get involved and believe all the progress made during the civil rights movement in the '60s has been repealed or pushed back. She asked why that is.
After a long silence, a young activist named Ashley Williams spoke up for her generation.
"Younger people see challenges different from how the civil rights movement originally saw challenges, so we also see successes differently. We don't now acknowledge policy challenges as a step in the right direction," Williams said. "A lot of the changes we do want to see are blanketed, overnight things, unfortunately, and I think that contributes to the culture of us not being involved. We would rather be able to say we're post-racial now because we have a black president rather than see provisions made in the law that allow people of color to be considered differently when it comes to disparity, jobs, education or other kinds of benefits. We don't consider those things as meaningful, unfortunately. A lot of times we don't have a good understanding of how it impacts us directly."
Shakir related a story from Fayetteville, where she currently lives, as an example of why the movement is more important than any one man or woman. She said Fayetteville was struggling with "a huge driving-while-black problem," in which people of color were being harassed and searched without due cause on a regular basis. In 2013, then-CMPD Deputy Chief Harold Medlock accepted the position as chief of the Fayetteville Police Department.
"Chief Medlock has really instituted a lot of changes and is very positive in terms of community policing. We've seen those numbers drop dramatically from 1,100 or 1,300 searches to 60 in a year," Shakir said. "My worry is: suppose he leaves tomorrow, then what? So policy change is very important because you can have a wonderful individual, but if you haven't changed that policy and put it into law somewhere, you're back where you were. We need to help young people understand that; that it's not about just the feel-good moment."
Just hours before the meeting, and 80 miles north, testimony continued in Winston-Salem in the federal case against the new voting law.
That day, Helen Compton, a high school teacher in Durham, described to the court the futility of attempting to register her students, many of which were just nearly 18, to vote after the passing of H.B. 589.
"[The students] are very interested in registering to vote. They understand that they are members of a democracy," Compton said. "Motivation is still there, but if we lose pre-registration, we lose opportunities to register. Quite frankly, I fear that they won't get registered. I think we'll lose them."
Also that day, Lorraine Minnite, a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden, testified on the scarcity of voter fraud nationally and in North Carolina. In debate about the bill in 2013 and since, proponents have argued the new restrictions are justified to fight against voter fraud; an idea that Minnite's testimony all but made null and void.
Minnite presented a report showing evidence presented by the North Carolina Board of Elections that the board had dealt with only two referrals regarding voter impersonation between 2000 and 2014, in which time more than 35 million votes were cast. She also noted that not a single piece of evidence has been presented to show how same-day registration could open the door to voter fraud, despite that argument being used by legislators repeatedly as a way to protect election integrity.
"In a democracy, the integrity question is an access question," said Minnite, according to a release from civil rights orgnaization Advancement Project. "You have to have both. If some people have less access, then the electoral process doesn't have as much integrity."
Earlier in the week, multiple experts testified to the legitimacy of the plaintiffs' claims that H.B. 589 is deliberately targeting people of color. Kim Strach, director of the North Carolina Board of Elections, admitted that African-Americans are more likely to use early voting and may face greater challenges in voting under the new law. Political historian and statistician Allan Lichtman also testified that his examination of legislative records in the sequence of events leading up to the bill's passage suggests that legislators knew and understood the discriminatory impact of the bill, and that the law's language was deliberately crafted to decrease voter turnout for people of color.
The plaintiffs rested their case on July 24, and state attorneys began their defense of the bill on Monday, July 27.
At the meeting in Charlotte, people registered to vote and collected booklets on the updated rules for voting in 2015 (see sidebar) to hand out to friends and family.
N.C. Rep. Rodney Moore addressed the small crowd, and noted that August 6 will bring the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act. "This forum is so very critical and timely about what's going on as it relates to our rights being challenged and stripped away for the most basic and fundamental right that any citizen in any country has, which is the right to vote for their elected bodies," he said.
ROCK THE VOTE, DON'T BLOCK THE VOTE
The following rules are important if you plan to vote in city or school board elections this year (you know, just the people in charge of policing you and teaching your children). Visit charmeck.org/mecklenburg/county/BOE/Pages/default.aspx or call Kristin Mavromatis with the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections at 704-336-2133 for more information.
No ID Needed
Most voters do not need to show ID to vote in 2015. The voter identification law takes effect in 2016, if not stopped by the courts, first.
For a Very important Date...
The following dates are for the mayoral and city council races. Polls are open from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. If you are in line at 7:30 p.m., it is your right to be allowed to vote.
9/3 – Early voting for primaries begins
9/15 – Primary election day
10/6 – Runoff (if neccesary)
10/22 – Early voting starts
11/3 – Election Day
Register To Vote
Registration forms are at libraries, high schools or www.ncsbe.gov. You must register again if you have changed your address or name or have finished serving a felony sentence. You must be registered in your home county by 25 days before the election (Oct. 9 in Charlotte).
Choose A Home
College students can register at a campus address or at an address where you plan to return. Just don't register two different addresses.
Done Your Time?
Residents with a felony record from any state can register and vote in North Carolina after serving their sentence. No special documentation is needed, just register as a new voter. You also do not lose your right to vote if you have a warrant, fine, misdemeanor or bankruptcy.
Call the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections for Early Voting info. If you change your name or move within your county, you can update your registration during Early Voting. If you do vote on Election Day, you must vote at your assigned precinct.