As early voting for the midterm elections draws near, North Carolina is struggling once again with continued legal battles over gerrymandering and claims of voter fraud, reflecting a larger voter suppression effort that is as frightening as it is familiar. Just last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) subpoenaed the North Carolina Board of Elections for voting records, ostensibly to investigate illegal votes cast by non-citizens. This comes just after the District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina’s decision to retain the state’s electoral maps for the upcoming elections, regardless of its previous ruling that the maps were unconstitutional due to partisan gerrymandering. At the same time, the General Assembly—undeterred after a controversial 2013 voter ID law was struck down by an appellate court last year—has drafted a constitutional amendment mandating voters provide photo identification at the polls. The proposal, regardless of multiple legal challenges, will likely be on the ballot this fall.
Though these developments are in many ways distinct, at the core of each issue is unquestionably an effort to erode a fundamental right of all American citizens: the right to vote. North Carolina’s gerrymandered districts intentionally suppress the votes and in turn the voices of those already disadvantaged while amplifying the voices of more privileged populations. Though only 53 percent of voters in 2016 cast their ballots for Republican candidates, ultimately 10 Republican representatives were elected to the General Assembly compared to only 3 Democrats. Even more troubling is the persistent myth of widespread voter fraud in North Carolina—a political strategy that is used again and again to justify voter ID laws that serve more often to disenfranchise vulnerable populations than to protect electoral integrity.
While an investigation by the State Board of Elections found only one instance of in-person voter fraud out of the nearly 4.8 million votes cast in North Carolina in 2016, the documented cases of harm stemming from self-styled ‘fraud prevention tactics’ such as voter ID laws are immense. Photo identification is not easily accessible for many poorer North Carolina residents a reality which disproportionately affects communities of color. In their decision ruling the 2013 North Carolina voter ID law unconstitutional, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals explicitly stated that such policies “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” For populations without access or economic means to register for such identification documents in time, voter ID laws effectively mean that their voices will not be represented in the ballot come election time.
The Board of Elections investigation also uncovered that, of the illegitimate ballots filed in 2016, 87 percent were votes cast by felons, who are prohibited from voting while in prison, on probation or on parole under North Carolina law. For those on probation or parole, who are oftentimes unaware of the ban, practicing their right to vote will unfortunately come with yet another felony charge and reincarceration. For the sake of the census used to draw electoral districts and distribute representatives, those with criminal histories are equal to those without. Yet, in states across the country, felons are denied their right to participate in electing those same representatives or in shaping the policies that directly affect their lives and communities.
In all of these cases, it is impossible to separate the clear marginalization of vulnerable peoples and communities from the deep history of disenfranchisement in the region. The legacy of poll taxes, literacy tests, property laws and lengthy residency requirements that all but erased minority voters from Southern states in the aftermath of Reconstruction can be felt in the present-day proposals. In the place of Jim-Crow era voting restrictions, some North Carolina legislators have endeavored to deter certain populations from the ballot, whether it be through arbitrary accusations of “voter fraud” or through an unnecessary voter ID requirement. Even student populations in the state—as a result of their often unclear residency status—can find themselves uniquely vulnerable to accusations of fraud.
These issues represent incredibly complex legal challenges that will continue to wreak havoc on voting populations beyond this November. For those who stand for egalitarian voting practices in a state that continues to discourage certain peoples from voting, we must come together at the ballot box this coming November. By electing politicians who share our values, we can effect change, and protect the constitutional rights of those whose voting rights are currently threatened by arbitrary acts of political malice.