CHARLOTTE — In North Carolina, commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s dream credited past struggles while a current battle over voting laws took center stage.
In an uptown Charlotte park Wednesday, the crowd used the examples of civil rights pioneers in a continuation of the Moral Monday protests against conservative laws from the Republican-controlled state legislature. Similar gatherings were planned in each of the state’s 13 congressional districts. While many issues, including education and health care spending, were reflected in comments and emblazoned on signs, the new state voter-ID bill was a unifying cause.
Later Wednesday evening, several Democratic and Republican legislators took questions from their Mecklenburg County constituents in a raucous forum called, ironically as it turned out, “Solving It Together.” At the top of the list in hundreds of questions submitted beforehand – voter-ID laws.
The new laws have already garnered national publicity, and not the kind North Carolina likes. At the state CEO Forum in Raleigh last week, former secretary of state Colin Powell criticized the voting legislation, saying, “These kinds of actions do not build on the base.” He made those remarks after GOP Gov. Pat McCrory, who had signed the bill into law, addressed the group, though McCrory later said he left before the retired general spoke.
Besides requiring photo ID, the bill shortens early voting by a week, ends preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds, eliminates same-day voter registration, Sunday voting and straight-ticket voting, prohibits university students from using their college IDs and increases the number of poll watchers who can challenge a voter’s eligibility, among other provisions. It is currently being challenged in court and Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) has asked Attorney General Eric Holder to take action as the Justice Department has in Texas.
Actions of GOP-controlled elections boards in North Carolina have also been grabbing headlines, from the closing of a polling place at Appalachian State University to the ruling that a student at historically black Elizabeth City State University cannot run for city council using his college address to establish residency.
At Charlotte’s Marshall Park, a program of speakers and singers, as well as the sunny weather, duplicated the mood of the 1963 Washington march. Under a voter registration tent, a pledge card from the state NAACP urged attendees to be part of the “Forward Together, Not One Step Back” movement voter empowerment effort. The Rev. William Barber, head of the state NAACP, was on the program.
Amy Gollinger, a physician from Davidson, N.C., held a sign reading “Protect every American’s Right to Vote,” which she alternated with ones that said “Protect women’s rights” and “Why deny Medicaid to struggling families?” referencing McCrory’s decision to refuse federal Medicaid funds. She said Wednesday was a “perfect time” to protest. “Even though we’ve come far since 1963, our state legislature has shown we have much further to go,” she said. “It’s unbelievable we’ve gone from one of the most progressive states to one of the most regressive. I hope it empowers voters to get out and make a change.”
Sitting next to Gollinger with a sign reading “Stop the attacks on public education!” James Davidson of Charlotte said, “I’m here for Martin Luther King,” and called proposals from the legislature “going back to Jim Crow.” He said he hoped new laws would spur citizens to action. “They went to sleep and didn’t get out to vote,” he said.
At the Mecklenburg legislators’ forum at Central Piedmont Community College, the crowd in the packed auditorium loudly registered its approval, disapproval or disbelief as representatives of the state House and Senate explained actions on voting, education and the back-and-forth over attempts to change control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the city to a state authority to a commission.
In heavily Democratic Charlotte, audience sentiment at the forum, sponsored in part by local media outlets, was loudly skeptical of the Republican-led changes.
Voting rights led the discussion, with one questioner at the microphone asking for data on the fraud that is given as reason for the photo-ID law (the answer came in anecdotal examples) and another quoting former president Bill Clinton’s words at the Washington commemoration of the 1963 march, “A great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon.”
From somewhere in the crowd came the tweet that there was much more debate onstage than in the North Carolina General Assembly, where GOP super-majorities were accused of rushing through bills.
It seemed less Old South vs. New South than voter voices vs. ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), with one question comparing North Carolina’s bills to model legislation from the conservative nonprofit. State Rep. Bill Brawley, a Republican and active ALEC member, said he believed in the organization’s goals of limited government, free market capitalism and federalism; Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican, said she has attended one of the group’s meetings. All of the legislators said they serve their constituents, not any organization.
State Sen. Dan Clodfelter, a Charlotte Democrat, said he remembered a time when “we weren’t afraid in this state to be different from the states around us,” when ideas “didn’t come out of anybody’s playbook.”
After the forum, voters lingered to continue the contact with officials some thought had not been listening closely enough during the legislative session. Clodfelter was wistful as he spoke of the times North Carolina passed pioneering laws, such as the Racial Justice Act, which allowed death-row inmates to appeal their sentences and have them converted to life in prison without parole if they could prove racial bias in their cases. (It was repealed this year.) “Now we’re known for the wrong kind of things,” he said. When one of his Republican colleagues noted that the Democrat had Wednesday’s crowd on his side, Clodfelter said he answered, “You made them that way.”
State Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Republican who had managed to be conciliatory in his conservatism during the panel, insisted he “loved” the night’s verbal battles. “It’s what the American system is all about,” he said, though since his party passed its legislative agenda, it was easy for him to be magnanimous.
Samuelson sat on the edge of the stage as the crowd filtered out. She defended her support of the voting bill, and noted a New York Times editorial “The Decline of North Carolina” that criticized the general Assembly’s actions and caused quite a stir in this image-conscious state. She said studies have found that “after this bill,” it’s easier to vote in North Carolina than New York.
When asked what she thought of congressman and civil rights veteran John Lewis’s attack on voter-ID laws, particularly on the date marking the 50th anniversary of his appearance with other civil rights leaders at the 1963 March on Washington, she said, “I appreciate the sacrifices they made, I appreciate the emotion around this issue,” then added,” I’m trying to protect the integrity of their vote. … They worked hard for that vote; I want to make sure it doesn’t get stolen.
State Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Charlotte Democrat, had said onstage that in North Carolina you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than be affected by voter fraud. He said that when his daughter returned to historically black Winston- Salem State University this year, she and other students were greeted with stories that a county board of elections chair wanted to eliminate the school’s early voting site. “Our national brand as a state has been tarnished,” he said.
After the forum, Graham said he believed the passion would extend past Wednesday night. “This thing has legs,” he said. The test, he said, would be the tough reelection Hagan faces in 2014. “That’s the line in the sand the Democrats have to draw.”