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"Capturing the Flag" documentary reveals suppression laws in NC threaten voting rights

Volunteer voter protection worker, Brooklyn -based entertainment lawyer, and producer of "Capturing the Flag" Laverne Berry sits outside a polling location. The documentary premiered in Durham at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Nelson Walker III

Steven Miller and Laverne Berry first traveled to North Carolina to support voting rights during the 2008 presidential election. The two attorneys worked with groups at the polls to counsel voters encountering problems with voting on what to do next.

The documentary “Capturing the Flag,” featuring Berry and Miller alongside their friend, Claire Wright debuted at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham on April 8.  It tells the story of how they worked for voter protection in Fayetteville during the 2016 election.

Miller said he hoped the film, directed by Anne de Mare, could inspire viewers to want to help preserve voting rights in the state.

“In the film you see each of us at different precincts addressing different people that are running into problems and helping them when they get turned away,” Miller said. “Even if you just help one person vote who’s being obstructed, that’s making a difference.”

Irving L. Joyner, an attorney and spokesperson for the NAACP who was featured in the film, said one major barrier to voting in North Carolina is the removal of voters from registration rolls by state and county boards of elections. 

“We have an ongoing lawsuit pending in the federal courts which is challenging three counties that have had a history of purging voters from the rolls,” he said. “We are attempting to get that expanded to cover all 100 counties in the state.”

In "Capturing the Flag," many of the volunteers encountered voters who had been removed from the voting rolls. Many of these voters were asked to fill out provisional ballots, but only about a third of provisional ballots are counted, Miller allegedly.

Miller said voters can be removed from the polls even if they are still eligible because of a North Carolina law that allows any individual to challenge someone’s registration. If a card is sent to someone’s address and then returned to sender, they are removed from the polls.

“One woman who was in her 90s and had been voting her entire life was purged because she gets all her mail at a P.O. Box,” Miller said. “The card was sent to her street address, and she was removed from the polls without anyone attempting to send something to her post office box. There were probably a lot of people who voted by absentee who didn’t know they were purged and their votes weren’t even counted.”

Other voters in the film told volunteers they had been to several voting locations and kept getting turned away. One woman said she was about to give up because she had to return to work as soon as possible. 

Jennifer Frye, spokeswoman for Democracy North Carolina, said that until 2013, North Carolina was a model for other states for having voting laws that made voter participation easier. 

But in 2013, a Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder removed the provision of The Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required certain state and local governments to receive federal permission before changing their voting laws.

Frye said since then the North Carolina General Assembly has taken steps to make voting harder, such as passing a law requiring specific types of voter identification and cutting back on early voting and preregistration.

“It’s frustrating that our legislature is spending time making it more difficult to vote instead of continuing to find ways to make the voting process smoother and more fair for everyone,” she said.

A federal court struck down North Carolina's voter identification law before the 2016 election because of the discriminatory nature of the law that especially targeted black voters.

Frye said North Carolina could improve voting access and make sure as many eligible people as possible can vote by removing the cutoff date for voter registration and allowing people to register all the way up to election day. 

Joyner said films like this celebrate people working to protect democratic rights.

“One of the key things that it does is help lift up the issues and concerns and put a real face on the problems people are encountering during their voting efforts,” Joyner said. “That kind of film can educate people on what is happening in their counties.”

Organizing people to be at the polls and bringing people down to vote is something anyone can do, Joyner said.

"What they can do is organize people in their communities to improve voter access and mobilize people to have discussions about efforts to promote voting and the efforts that are underway to disenfranchise them," he said.

Miller said there are plenty of ways for people to be involved in protecting voting rights, even if it’s just offering a ride to the polls. Volunteering to help with voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts are also valuable.

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“At the root of everything we care about in democracy is the right to vote,” he said. “You vote for people who share your values. As people are disenfranchised they lose their voice and they don’t have to ability to have a say in what happens to them through government.”

The documentary is not available to the public. Filmmakers are looking for distribution options.