Initially, the Framers of the Constitution left it to the states to decide who could vote and where and when. We're still cleaning up that mess after 228 years.
Over the course of U.S. history, states restricted voting to property owners. Required that voters be male. Be white. Be tested on civic knowledge, if black, by white officials. Pay a poll tax.
Indeed, a short history of our voting laws would say that state politicians have in myriad ways limited the number of people who can use the franchise, forcing the nation to adopt a series of constitutional amendments to ensure that blacks, women, and 18-year-olds have an equal right to vote.
To enforce the post-Civil War amendments that ended slavery but failed to stop states from discriminating against black Americans, Congress passed the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.
It came after multitudes were jailed, tear-gassed and clubbed across the South, culminating in the Bloody Sunday march across the bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. President Lyndon Johnson signed the law Aug. 6—50 years ago next month.
Still, if every citizen over 18 (and not serving time) has a right to vote, some states persist in making it unnecessarily difficult to do so by manipulating registration rules, limiting polling locations, curbing voting hours and such. Often under the guise of reining in voter fraud, their real goal is to limit turnout and skew it in favor of the political party in power.
Which party is that? Inevitably, it seems like it's the one that attracts many white voters but very few African-Americans— i.e., the Republican Party.
On the other side: the Republican leadership of North Carolina, including Gov. Pat McCrory and the General Assembly, which in 2013 passed House Bill 589, denounced by opponents as "The Monster Voter Suppression Act."
HB 589 is 50-plus pages of voting impediments. You may know it, though, as the photo ID law, because its main stumbling block was a requirement that, starting in 2016, every voter who goes to the polls must present a valid form of photo identification—of which, not incidentally, there were few other than a driver's license.
This was an obvious attempt by the Republicans to limit voting by low-income folks who don't drive, a group disproportionately older, African-American and—yes—Democratic. To make its intent perfectly clear, the photo ID requirement did not apply to absentee ballots, used more by registered Republicans.
So blatant was the discriminatory purpose of photo ID, however, that as the trial approached, the Republicans were suddenly struck by, if not remorse, then warnings from their lawyers that unless they got rid of it, the photo rule might expose their unsavory reasons for the whole of HB 589.
Thus, the Republicans ditched the photo ID requirement in mid-June, enacting a change at lightning speed. The new law allows people with no valid photo ID to attest, by signature, that they are who they say they are. As state Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, observed sarcastically, it "makes a bad bill a little less worse."
Less, yes, but still a terrible addition to the list of state transgressions against democracy; that's why the NAACP and allied groups are marching in Winston-Salem on Monday to mark the trial. And why their motto is, "This is Our Selma."
What remains of HB 589? It reduces the number of early-voting days from 17 to 10. (In the 2012 elections, 70 percent of black voters came early, compared to 52 percent of whites.) It eliminates same-day registration and voting during the early voting period. (Blacks, who are 22 percent of the voting population, were 34 percent of the same-day registrant-voters.) And if you vote in the wrong precinct—say, because you moved—none of your votes count, even for president.
One upshot is that people who come to an early-voting site and aren't properly registered will be too late to get properly registered in time to vote on Election Day. North Carolina, in the top 12 states for voter turnout since same-day registration began in 2008, may sink back to the bottom.
Whether the courts will rule that this violates the Voting Rights Act or the Constitution, I don't know. The Supreme Court in 2013 severely weakened the VRA, no doubt prompting the GOP to go all-in for discrimination with HB 859.
What I do know is that what ultimately matters is the court of public opinion. In every possible way, Republicans are using the voting laws and gerrymandered districts to dilute the impact of African-American voters, giving Republicans the chance to "win" with fewer votes.
Yes, it's undemocratic. But democracy requires that people know what's happening and, when it's wrong, demand that it stop. That's also our history of voting laws—and the message of Selma.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Our Selma."