When Irving Joyner, a professor of law at North Carolina Central University, was a child, he saw his grandparents, dressed in their finest clothes, leaving to register to vote.
“At the time I did not recognize just how courageous that was and how dangerous it was to them,” he said. “But I saw them when they returned and the rejection and dejection on their faces when they reported that they were unable to register because the local registrar did not deem them able to pass the literacy test or to pay the poll tax that were imposed on African Americans during that time.”
Since Joyner turned 18, he’s taken his “revenge,” voting in every election, but the fight for enfranchisement, in his view, isn’t over.
At "Denied and Abridged: The Struggle for Voting Rights in North Carolina," hosts Susan Blount and Becca Zerkin of Neighbors on Call discussed past and present voting rights efforts with Joyner and Anna Richards, president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP.
Zerkin introduced Neighbors on Call as a progressive grassroots group for people who want to take action on state policy and elections.
“We knew that we wanted to start 2020 with a sobering look at the really shameful history of North Carolina voter rights and what role we can each play in that story,” she said.
Julia Storm, who attended the panel, said she liked being in a room with energized advocates.
“Hearing all the details about all the effort that has been put into voter suppression motivates me a lot to get out there and make it accessible for people to exercise their right,” she said.
Richards acknowledged that violence and intimidation have always played key roles in voter suppression, referencing the Wilmington Massacre of 1898.
“The only coup in the history of this country, a violent coup of a duly-elected government, planned and carried out by the opposition and by prominent people in government, was done here in this state,” she said.
Richards said this brutal history has a lasting legacy.
“This whole idea of suppression and intimidation and misinformation and violence is a part of North Carolina history that underlies the issues of the last 10 years,” she said.
Joyner seconded this sentiment.
“We had evidence to show that the motivation behind the constitutional amendment, the motivation behind the legislative enactments, was race,” he said. “And it was designed to disenfranchise as many African-Americans and Latinos, poor people, in this state, as possible in order to preserve the plantation for those people who control the General Assembly.”
Both Joyner and Richards have been involved in legal challenges to what they identify as voter suppression tactics, including voter ID requirements and gerrymandering.
Joyner said there is no such thing as a liberal voter ID law. Even within allowances, he pointed out, there are exceptions.
For instance, though some college IDs are accepted, he characterized the standards for approval as rigorous, excluding many community colleges. Government IDs and public assistance IDs aren’t accepted in the current law, both of which disproportionately disenfranchise minorities, he said.
“I grew up during the Jim Crow days and I grew up at a time that in African American communities when our mothers had babies, they couldn’t go to the hospital because it was illegal to go to the hospital,” Joyner said. “Hospitals couldn’t treat you and thereby African American children were born without a birth certificate."
Since a birth certificate is a foundational document, he said this provision makes many African Americans ineligible for a state-issued photo ID.
Joyner said he is confident voter ID won’t be a requirement in the general election — it certainly won’t be in the primary — but he is pushing for a large voter turnout in a country where two-thirds of eligible voters are registered to vote and about 53 percent of eligible voters vote as of 2018.
Richards said voter suppression tactics can influence turnout.
“In the intimidation factor, and the fear factor, and the ‘Is my vote going to count?’ question that lingers out there, has an impact on how do you get everybody motivated to go out and vote?” she said.
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