State lawmakers celebrate Voting Rights Act anniversary
Posted August 6, 2015
Updated August 7, 2015
Raleigh, N.C. — Black state lawmakers and allies gathered at the legislature Thursday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.
The landmark 1965 legislation, signed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, ensured access to the voting booth for minority voters. It also added a requirement that areas where past voting discrimination had occurred, including 40 counties in North Carolina, could not change their voting laws without the approval of the U.S. Department of Justice.
That legislation was driven in large part by civil unrest in Selma, Ala., earlier that year, where protesters seeking voting rights for minorities clashed with armed law enforcement on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., at Selma. In his mind, the struggle is as fresh and raw today as ever. He's a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against the Republican-penned 2013 election law overhaul in North Carolina.
Arguments in that case, which has attracted a great deal of national attention, concluded at the end of July. It's awaiting a decision by U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder.
North Carolina's 2013 law is unique in rolling back previous measures to make voting easier. It shortened the early voting period by a week, eliminated same-day registration, banned the partial counting of votes cast in the wrong precinct and ended pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds.
Michaux and other civil rights leaders say those rollbacks disproportionately disadvantage minority and low-income voters, who were more likely to take advantage of them.
"I never thought I’d be going back to the streets. I thought that was over with, I thought we were through with that," Michaux said Thursday. "I thought everybody accepted the fact everybody deserved that franchise."
On the House floor Thursday morning, Michaux spoke at some length of his experience in Selma and in rural North Carolina in the 1960s and of the importance of the Voting Rights Act.
"Those of us of color who sit in this body came here as a result of the Voting Rights Act," he told the House. "Now, I’m finding that I have to fight the same fight I fought 50 years ago."
Michaux's remarks, which grew increasingly accusatory toward Republican backers of the 2013 law, were cut off by House Speaker Tim Moore after about eight minutes. After Michaux attempted to file a constitutional protest, House members agreed to suspend the rules to allow him to finish his speech.
"I could not on good conscience leave you or leave this body with the impression that everything is all right," Michaux concluded. "When you look to disenfranchise, when you look to suppress, then think about the people that died for that right to vote."
At a press conference after the day's session, Michaux blamed the election overhaul on a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision that removed the pre-clearance requirement for North Carolina and other states with a history of discrimination against minority voters.
"That started the battle all over again because, at that point, the other side came in and rushed through all kinds of legislation to knock down things that we had built up," he said.
Republicans, however, defended the 2013 overhaul even as they honored the Voting Rights Act's anniversary.
North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Hasan Harnett, who is also black, called the passage of the 1965 law "historic."
"As we honor the courage and sacrifice of those who stood up for the fundamental right to vote, we must also acknowledge that every North Carolinian deserves the right to vote in a system free of fraud, mistakes and confusion," Harnett said in a statement.
An expert at the federal trial testified in late July that there were only two verified cases of voter fraud out of 35 million votes cast in North Carolina in the last eight election cycles.
Nonetheless, Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, who backed the challenged law as House Elections Chair, issued a statement insisting that the changes were made to protect the integrity of elections.
"It is my belief that, despite how some are characterizing our recent voting law changes, they safeguard the freedom to vote enumerated to us in the Constitution," Lewis said in the statement. "Our reforms have been both comprehensive and progressive, and they truly give all North Carolinians equality in the eyes of the law and equality in access to their sacred right to vote. I am proud of North Carolina for enacting fair legislation that confirms our liberties for generations to come.”
Meantime, other black lawmakers echoed Michaux's call for renewed vigilance and activism.
"The fight is not over. Those who will come behind us need to be made aware of what we've come through to get where we are today so it will not repeat itself," said Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, urging the black community to vote. "Too many people have bled and died for us to have this right for us not to take advantage of it."