I remember when I was about seven years old, my mother took me with her to a small country store that served as a store, gas station, post office and now I know a voter registration center.
We went in and stood in line behind another woman at the post office window. It was the fall of 1960. We waited for what seemed forever, as cigarette smoke engulfed us from the farmers who were sitting around the pot-bellied stove in the middle of the store, gossiping about the weather and how their crops had done over the past year.
Finally, it was my mother’s turn. She gently told the man that she wanted to take the test. “But you don’t have to Mrs. Stout. You’re white!” My mother stated that if the woman in front of her had to take the test, she had to take the test. Again the man declared, “But that test is just for colored people!”
My mother insisted on taking the test. She read from the Constitution, and then had to write down what the man read to her from the Constitution. You could hear a pin drop in the store. Everyone had stopped talking and was staring at us. I had no idea what my mother was doing, but I knew enough to feel afraid and think we were in trouble. I thought she was doing something very wrong.
I always remembered what happened, but it was several years before I talked to my mother about it. By then, I was able to understand that she was standing up for something good – for insisting on being treated the same as the African American woman who was being treated differently because of the color of her skin.
It would be a long time before I truly understood racism, but at that time my mother showed me that we should stand up for people being treated differently.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act changed this practice, although discrimination and intimidation continued, especially in the South. In 2013, key parts of the Voting Rights Act were invalidated – almost 50 years later.
Just this month, U.S. District Court Judge, Loretta Biggs, said the North Carolina voter challenge process seems “insane,” and that the purging of mostly African American voters from voter rolls “sounds like something that was put together in 1901… it almost looks like a cattle call, the way people are being purged.”
Last week the North Carolina NAACP sued the State to stop local election boards from purging voter rolls through a process that the group said disproportionately targets African Americans. The U.S. Department of Justice agreed with the NAACP allegations. It is sending federal elections monitors to four counties in North Carolina that are primarily people of color. They also have instructed the Board of Elections to put thousands of people back on the rolls, again mostly people of color.
Earlier this year, the Federal Appeals Courts ruled that 2013 North Carolina voting laws intended to discriminate with provisions targeting “African Americans with almost surgical precision.” Judges and national journalists call North Carolina “ground zero on voting rights” as we have some of the worst voting rights laws in the country.
The pronouncement from the federal judge was very strong, and is symptomatic of what is happening because the Voting Rights Act has been eviscerated.
Our national voting program is a disaster. Since 2013, states with a history of discriminatory voter laws have been able to change laws and impose greater restrictions without federal oversight. Different states create election boards according to the party in power. The only exception to this was Wisconsin that had a non-partisan election board, but that board will be disbanded this year after a 2015 bill was signed into law by that state’s Governor. Within most states, the rules are different in each county. In North Carolina, each voting election board consist of three people of the Governor’s choosing, two from the ruling party and one from the other party. Then, each county makes its own rules.
Without the federal judge’s ruling that North Carolina could not close early voting, we would not even have had early voting. And even then, it’s a challenge. For example, the counties decide on how many early voting places there can be. In some very large counties, the early voting only has one place, requiring people to travel long distances and stand in very long lines. Of course, these tend to be counties that are a majority of people of color.
Changing restrictive voting laws is critical to our future and our democracy. As my mother showed me, we must stand up for those who are being treated differently.