In N.C. skirmish in national voting-rights wars, student once thrown off ballot wins race

October 10, 2013

Being thrown off the ballot was the best thing that ever happened to Montravias King. The national coverage that rained down on the Elizabeth City State University student when a local elections board in North Carolina rejected his initial City Council bid surely helped him break out from the field of candidates. He got the chance to plead his case, and his views, before millions, reaching many more people than a meager campaign budget could ever allow. This week, according to preliminary results, the university senior was the top vote-getter and will get to represent the ward where his school is located.

Was turnout affected by the actions of the board in an increasingly partisan state atmosphere where restrictive voting laws have drawn legal action from many groups, including the U.S. Justice Department? King, who never stopped thinking local, didn’t take any chances, knocking on 365 doors for votes, he said in the News & Record. He said that in addition to his fellow students, he had gotten a “great and amazing” reception from older voters. That he had also discussed the issue of voter suppression with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, who went to North Carolina for the story, was an unexpected extra.

The case could signal some frustration with actions by the Republican-controlled state legislature and governor’s office, a conservative North Carolina turn that triggered protests that continue. And it could preview voting battles ahead, in the state and the nation.

For a while, it didn’t look good for King. The civics-minded student, active in the NAACP, used his on-campus address – the one he had voted from since he moved there after high school — when he filed for office. Richard “Pete” Gilbert, chairman of the Pasquotank County Republican party, argued, with backup from the Republican-controlled county elections board, that King couldn’t use a dormitory address. Gilbert also used that reasoning to challenge the voting rights of many students at historically black Elizabeth City and purge them from the rolls.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice, based in Durham, N.C., took up King’s case, and the North Carolina Board of Elections unanimously overturned the county decision, clearing the way for his candidacy. Since North Carolina law and U.S. Supreme Court precedent are clear that denying residency rights to college student is unconstitutional, the state board’s decision was anticlimactic. (In 1979, the Supreme Court affirmed the voting rights of students at historically black Prairie View A&M University in Texas, a state that is also in the midst of defending new voting laws from challenges from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.) Along with an unnecessary hurdle, the suit handed King all that national attention.

The state of North Carolina has had plenty of publicity since the legislature took action after the Supreme Court this year invalidated key portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the court eliminated the need for selected states to clear any voting changes with the federal government. Among other restrictions that expand campaign contributions and eliminate Sunday voting, North Carolina’s new voting laws require strict forms of photo ID — student identification is not acceptable. Supporters say the laws will curb in-person voter fraud; opponents say they are designed to make voting difficult for traditionally Democratic-leaning minorities, elderly, the poor and – especially in this case – young people.

Unofficially, King won 38 percent of the vote, coming in first and taking one of two council seats. In a hard-fought but small fight, he won. Look for a broader battle over voting laws, partisan politics and the direction of North Carolina, with help from activists and big-money campaign contributions.

If Montravias King’s Elizabeth City council race can stir such a national commotion over who can run for office and cast a ballot, imagine the scene in 2014 when North Carolina Democrat Kay Hagan’s seat and the party’s control of the U.S. Senate are in play.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily.
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Ruth Tam · October 10, 2013