On June 21, 1964, the civil-rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner were abducted in Neshoba County, Mississippi, and brutally murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. The killings in Mississippi, where only 6.7 percent of African Americans were registered to vote in 1964, shocked the nation and helped lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Yet opponents of the VRA never stopped fighting the law. Ronald Reagan, who called the VRA “humiliating to the South,” kicked off his general-election campaign for president in 1980 at the nearly all-white Neshoba County Fair, which had long been a hotbed of white supremacy. Reagan spoke nearly 16 years to the day after the bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were discovered, and told the crowd, “I believe in states’ rights”—a phrase that had long been the rallying cry of Southern segregationists. (I tell this story in more detail in my book Give Us the Ballot.)
“For a presidential candidate to kick off his campaign there, that was heartbreaking,” said civil-rights leader John Lewis. “It was a direct slap in the face of the movement and all of the progress that we were trying to make.”
The legacy of Reagan’s opposition to the VRA still defines our politics today.
John Roberts, a young lawyer in the Reagan administration who wrote dozens of memos at the time criticizing the VRA, three decades later authored the majority opinion gutting the law, ruling that states with the longest histories of voting discrimination, like Mississippi, no longer have to approve their voting changes with the federal government.
The 52nd anniversary of the murders of Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner coincide with the third anniversary of the Shelby County v. Holder decision. The full impact of that ruling will be felt in this year’s election, the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the VRA. Seventeen states have new voting restrictions in place for the 2016 presidential race, including more than half of those previously covered by Section 5 of the VRA, and representing 189 electoral votes, 70 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to clinch the presidency.
“Today, rather than using murder, unscrupulous people have found new disenfranchisement tactics to prevent whole communities from voting in order to retain political advantage,” writes David Goodman, Andrew Goodman’s younger brother.
North Carolina is the most striking example of the devastating impact of the Shelby County decision. A month after the ruling, the state passed a sweeping rewrite of its election laws, including requiring strict voter ID to cast a ballot, cutting early voting, and eliminating same-day registration, out-of-precinct voting, and pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds.
These restrictions were upheld in April by federal district court Judge Thomas Schroeder, a conservative George W. Bush-appointee. The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit will hear a new challenge to the case today.
Schroeder’s 485-page opinion ignored the many stories of voters who were turned away from the polls because of the new restrictions, like the elimination of same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting in 2014, and the new voter-ID law in the 2016 primary.
Dale Hicks, a 40-year-old former marine sergeant, was one of those voters. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights recently profiled him:
Dale Hicks, an African-American man who served in the Marine Corps for five years, including one year in Afghanistan, has been an active voter for close to 20 years. After being honorably discharged and transitioning to the IT field, he moved to Raleigh in June 2014. He had started hearing about the negative impacts of House Bill 589 around his community and decided to check his registration to ensure his address was up to date before voting in November. At his local precinct, he was informed that his registration information contained his old Jacksonville, N.C., address. Hicks assumed that, worst-case scenario, he’d just have to drive two hours to Jacksonville to vote. But he was told that because of the discrepancy in his address, he would not be able to vote at all because of the suspension of same-day registration. Stories like Hicks’ are likely all too common among veterans, who change addresses often because of the nature of their service. “You know, you finish serving your country and you come back and to be told no, you can’t, your voice will not be heard because your address says 9th street and you live on 7th street,” Hicks said. “It’s not right.”
In 2014, Democracy North Carolina documented 2,300 cases like Hicks’s of voters disenfranchised by the new restrictions. By comparison, there were only two cases of voter impersonation in the state from 2000 to 2012, out of 35 million votes cast.
Voting-rights advocates hope that the Fourth Circuit court, which temporarily reinstated same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting in September 2014 before being overruled by the Supreme Court, will be sympathetic to their case. During a hearing in September 2014, Judge James Wynn asked the state’s lawyers, “Why does the state of North Carolina not want people to vote?”
That’s a very good question.
UPDATE: The panel of judges on the Fourth Circuit appeared skeptical of North Carolina’s voting restrictions, according to initial press reports. “It looks pretty bad to me, in terms of purposeful discrimination,” Judge Henry Floyd told a lawyer for the state. A reversal of the district court’s opinion, at least on some counts, seems possible now.