Winston-Salem—On the first day of the federal trial challenging North Carolina’s new voting restrictions, thousands of voting-rights activists marched through downtown Winston-Salem. They held signs reading, “North Carolina Is Our Selma” and “50 Years After Selma Voting Rights Still Matter.”
At first glance, the comparison between the Selma of the 1960s and the North Carolina of today seems absurd. Before the VRA was passed, only 2 percent of African-Americans were registered to vote in Selma, the most segregated city in the South. Today, largely because of the VRA, over 70 percent of black North Carolinians are registered to vote and black turnout exceeded white turnout in the past two presidential elections.
But there’s a crucial similarity between Selma in 1965 and North Carolina in 2015—both show the lengths conservative white Southerners will go to maintain their political power. The billy clubs and literacy tests of yesteryear have been replaced by subtler and more sophisticated attempts to control who can participate in the political process.
Exactly a month after the VRA was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013, North Carolina passed the country’s most sweeping voting restrictions. Key portions of the law—cutting early voting, eliminating same-day registration during early voting, not counting out of precinct ballots—were upheld on a preliminary basis in 2014. Thousands were prevented from voting as a result—38 percent were African-American and 47 percent were Democrats. (In recent elections, African-Americans in North Carolina were twice as likely to vote early, use same-day registration, and vote out of precinct compared with whites.)
Now the law is back in court and voters turned away because of the new restrictions testified on day one of the trial. (The state’s new voter ID law was unexpectedly softened by the legislature last month and is not part of the proceedings.)
Dale Hicks, a 39-year-old former sergeant in the Marine Corps, moved from Camp Lejeune in Onslow County to Raleigh in Wake County after returning from a 13-month deployment in Afghanistan. When he went to vote in his new hometown on October 31, 2014, Hicks was told he could not vote since the registration deadline had passed, and he could no longer update his registration because North Carolina had eliminated same-day registration. “It made me feel like I was being stifled,” he said in court. “It made me feel like I was being told to shut up.”