A Win Against Voter Suppression in the South

While Republicans have purged voter rolls and suppressed Black turnout in the South, voting rights organizers just showed how to win.

Casey Williams January 31, 2020

Manuel Mejia Diaz, of Democracy NC, looks on from North Carolina’s early-voting site at Fayetteville’s Smith Recreational Center—which will continue serving voters because of his and others’ grassroots efforts. (Photo by Melissa Gerrits)

RALEIGH, N.C. — Being an old Bap­tist preach­er, you know how we are,” Floyd John­son drawls with apolo­getic humor to the North Car­oli­na State Board of Elec­tions (BOE) in late Decem­ber 2019, at the end of its final meet­ing of the year. John­son, who chairs the Cum­ber­land Coun­ty BOE, trav­eled to the cap­i­tal with a sim­ple request: include Smith Recre­ation Cen­ter in Fayet­teville, steps from the his­tor­i­cal­ly Black Fayet­teville State Uni­ver­si­ty (FSU), as an ear­ly vot­ing site for the 2020 primary.

For students and residents alike, having an early voting site nearby can mean the difference between voting and sitting out.

Smith Rec not only serves FSU but sits in one of the heav­i­est pover­ty-struck areas of Cum­ber­land Coun­ty … cen­tered in the heart of the Afro-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty,” John­son says. Indeed, the site serves a pre­dom­i­nant­ly Black, work­ing-class neigh­bor­hood, where the medi­an annu­al income is below the pover­ty lev­el for a fam­i­ly of four. For stu­dents and res­i­dents alike, hav­ing an ear­ly vot­ing site near­by can mean the dif­fer­ence between vot­ing and sit­ting out.

Of the coun­ty BOE’s five mem­bers, the two Repub­li­cans opposed the idea, requir­ing state BOE approval to move for­ward. Lin­da Devore, one of the Repub­li­can mem­bers, cit­ed low vot­er turnout (dis­put­ed by advo­cates) among her rea­sons to oppose the inclu­sion of Smith Rec, but the state BOE sided with John­son and the 500 sig­na­tures he deliv­ered from Fayet­teville res­i­dents and stu­dents. In Feb­ru­ary, they will be able to vote, ear­ly, where they live, work and study.

This is a vic­to­ry for the com­mu­ni­ty around Smith Rec,” says Manuel Mejia Diaz, 25, who lives near­by. Mejia Diaz is the south­east­ern region­al man­ag­ing orga­niz­er for Democ­ra­cy NC, an advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion. When Com­mon Cause NC, anoth­er advo­ca­cy group, began the peti­tion effort, Mejia Diaz joined in.

With­out ear­ly vot­ing, peo­ple would have to wait for the bus, they would have to go all the way to down­town, wait, and maybe a prob­lem would arise and they’d have to han­dle that, then they have to wait for anoth­er bus, come back,” Mejia Diaz says, run­ning out of breath. It cre­ates a lot of has­sle” for work­ing people.

Vot­er sup­pres­sion con­tin­ues to be a prob­lem across the South. In Decem­ber 2019, Repub­li­can law­mak­ers in Geor­gia purged more than 300,000 vot­ers from its rolls, many of them low-income and peo­ple of color.

After North Car­oli­na expand­ed ear­ly vot­ing in the ear­ly 2000s, the Wash­ing­ton Post report­ed Black vot­er par­tic­i­pa­tion sky­rock­et­ed from 41.9% in 2000 to 68.5% in 2012.” In 2008, the Char­lotte Observ­er report­ed Black vot­ers account­ed for 36% of those cast­ing bal­lots on the first day of ear­ly vot­ing,” despite mak­ing up 22% of reg­is­tered voters.

In 2013, after the U.S. Supreme Court over­turned key pro­vi­sions of the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965, Repub­li­can law­mak­ers over­hauled North Carolina’s elec­tion pro­ce­dures, repress­ing Black vot­er turnout. In the name of fight­ing vot­er fraud (which report­ed­ly amounts to less than a round­ing error), the state adopt­ed strict vot­er ID require­ments and cur­tailed ear­ly vot­ing, among oth­er mea­sures — all of which a fed­er­al judge struck down in 2014, say­ing it tar­get­ed African Amer­i­cans with almost sur­gi­cal pre­ci­sion.” Sub­se­quent­ly, the state passed anoth­er vot­er ID law, which a dif­fer­ent fed­er­al judge struck down on Dec. 31, 2019, cit­ing the state’s sor­did his­to­ry of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and vot­er suppression.”

The Smith Rec vot­ing site had sur­vived the 2013 cuts and was open for ear­ly vot­ing in 2014 and 2016, but the coun­ty BOE opt­ed not to open it for the 2018 midterms and its fate remained uncer­tain ahead of 2020.

When Mejia Diaz learned in Novem­ber 2019 that Smith Rec was again like­ly to be left out, he hit the pave­ment with FSU senior Kris­t­ian Car­lyle, 21, a fel­low with Com­mon Cause NC. In a sin­gle week, orga­niz­ers col­lect­ed around 500 sig­na­tures and encour­aged res­i­dents to voice their sup­port at an upcom­ing coun­ty BOE meet­ing. Res­i­dents flood­ed the board’s offices in down­town Fayet­teville. The room was packed,” Mejia Diaz says.

Car­lyle has fought for stu­dents’ vot­ing rights since arriv­ing at FSU. It shouldn’t be dif­fi­cult to exer­cise what is — what should be — a sim­ple right,” she says.

Mejia Diaz says door-to-door orga­niz­ing may not be fan­cy, but it’s a good way to get peo­ple engaged.” And it works: In addi­tion to win­ning Smith Rec, res­i­dents pushed coun­ty BOEs to open ear­ly vot­ing sites at Win­ston-Salem State Uni­ver­si­ty and North Car­oli­na A&T State Uni­ver­si­ty, also his­tor­i­cal­ly Black col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties (HBCU), large­ly thanks to grass­roots organizing.

For stu­dents at FSU, the stakes of vot­ing in this elec­tion are high. HBCU stu­dents grad­u­ate with sig­nif­i­cant­ly more debt than their peers and have a hard­er time pay­ing it off. In April 2019, pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Eliz­a­beth War­ren pro­posed invest­ing $50 bil­lion in HBCUs, and in Novem­ber 2019, Bernie Sanders released a mul­ti-bil­lion dol­lar plan to make HBCUs tuition-free and erase loan debt.

HBCUs got Oba­ma elect­ed,” Car­lyle says. Their stu­dents, as well as the com­mu­ni­ties they serve, could very well shape the out­come of this election. 

Casey Williams is a writer based in Durham, NC. He cov­ers issues from envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice to south­ern cul­ture, and has pub­lished work in The New York Times, The Nation, Huff­Post, and oth­er local and nation­al outlets.
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