June 5, 2021
The first bill in the hopper for the current Congress, HR1, would expand voting rights on the federal level and preempt many of the state efforts to suppress voting access and participation, which seems to be a first order priority for many red state legislatures as well. There’s nothing in the bill that would represent radical reform like automatic registration, on the order of the military draft or mandatory voting, more common in a variety of countries than most Americans realize. Essentially, the bill amalgamates some of the practices that have been common in many states, but are not universal across the country, like mail ballot options, same day registration, and the like. Republicans, editorialists with the Wall Street Journal, and many living in demographic fear argue that ballot security is the issue, though that problem doesn’t exist, and belittle the reforms as inconsequential and unneeded.
On Wade’s World recently, (Wade’s World: Voter Suppression in North Carolina) I talked to Bob Hall, the former executive director of Democracy NC and the Institute for Southern Studies, publisher of the iconic Southern Exposure quarterly for decades, about an op-ed he and a co-author had penned as well as about the fifteen-year campaign he and his organization waged to win increased voting rights in North Carolina. The op-ed that he had shared with me was in a number of North Carolina dailies and we’re reprinting it in the coming issue of Social Policy. They took the title, “civic death”, from the ancient Greek who created the precedent of disenfranchisement and loss of citizenship for crimes, but in this case, they were concerned about the civic death of Black men in the ranks of voters.
They noted that about the same number of young Black men and women reach voting age in North Carolina every year, but there’s a huge gender gap each time ballots are counted. In 2020, when Trump won the state by 74,500 votes, Black women cast 622,000 ballots but Black men cast only 402,000 – a startling gap of 220,000 votes.
Needless to say, this is hardly an issue exclusive to North Carolina, but widely experienced both in Southern states and elsewhere. Bob and Keith Sutton of the NC Black Alliance argue that it springs from three causes: the homicide rates among young Black men, the marginalization of Black men, and confusion over “restoration rights” for the formerly incarcerated. One of the things Bob said that their coalitions had won was a different set of instructions at release so that people know they could immediately vote, but the problem persists.
Does all of this back and forth in expanding and restricting voting access and rights matter? Bob told a story about another long campaign to win a bill through the legislature – after a five-year fight – that made North Carolina the only Southern state to have same day registration and extended the early voting period seventeen days among other things. In the first federal election under these new rules in 2008, 100,000 people used same day registration, and the Obama margin of victory could be found in those numbers, just as a recent legislature’s elimination of one-week of early voting and unwillingness to add a Sunday in 2020, allowed Trump to take the state.
That’s what these fights are all about: the difference between democracy and politics. Make voting easier, more accessible, and transparent, and more people vote. Make it harder and harder, eliminate polling places and voting opportunities, tighten registration rules and access, and fewer people will vote. Why is this even an issue in a democracy? There’s no excuse, but the struggle continues, and it matters.