I won't say it was the last straw, because they're still working on their plan to cut taxes on the wealthy and shift the burden to working people and the poor. But the legislation proposed by Republican leaders in the General Assembly to suppress voter turnout put the lie to any claim they could make that their agenda—regardless how nasty—is serving the common good.
No, the common good is in the way of the true Republican goal, Hodding Carter III told an overflow audience of 200 at Duke University Thursday for "Save Our State," the inaugural meeting of Scholars for a Progressive North Carolina. Carter, a native of Mississippi and former Jimmy Carter administration official who teaches at UNC-Chapel Hill, said the Republicans' aim is nothing less than "to restore the divine right of the rich" to rule the South.
First, House Bill 451—formally titled the Election Omnibus bill but dubbed the Screw the Voter bill by the nonprofit group Democracy North Carolina—would cut early voting from two weeks to one, eliminate same-day registration and abolish straight-ticket voting. It would also ban voting on Sunday, a move meant to quash the "Souls to the Polls" drives in African-American churches.
Early voting has been enormously popular in the state since it began in 2008. More than half the votes in the '08 and '12 presidential election years were cast prior to Election Day—2.5 million voters came early in 2012, with 97,312 of them taking advantage of same-day registration.
The upshot, Democracy NC says, is that North Carolina enjoyed the biggest surge in voter participation rates of any state in the country.
But more voters is not what the Republicans want, especially more of the low-income folks and persons of color who helped Barack Obama carry North Carolina in '08, defying all predictions.
Clearly, the Republicans want fewer of "those people" voting, just as they want fewer people in need to collect unemployment compensation or be covered by Medicaid.
If you doubt this, Democracy NC Executive Director Bob Hall points out that far more registered Democrats voted early in '08 and '12 than Republicans. The margins were nearly 2-to-1; even in 2010, a big turnout year for the GOP, about 100,000 more Democrats voted early.
On the other hand, far more Republicans voted in all three election years by absentee ballot. So guess what the Election Omnibus bill makes it easier to do? That's right: The requirement that voters themselves fill out an absentee form with name and address would be eliminated, allowing political parties to pre-print everything but the votes.
And what about the photo ID requirement that Republicans have promised to impose on everyone at the polls? Silly you, if you thought that was about actual voter fraud.
Under the bill, absentee ballots will be allowed without any ID required, let alone a photo. You want voter fraud? "This is voter fraud," Hall says. It's also"a blatant partisan maneuver" with no justification except that Republicans want to win elections despite unpopular policies.
Two themes emerged from the scholars meeting at Duke. The first is that the Republicans' meme that everything in state government is "broken" is propaganda invented to discredit progressive advances over the last half-century. The second is that the fight against the reactionary right is a long-term struggle that won't be easily won—but which can be won.
On the first point, Gov. Pat McCrory used the argument that Medicaid is broken to reject an estimated $15 billion in federal aid over eight years to expand the program to 500,000 uninsured North Carolinians. "Politics at its worst," said N.C. Central University public health professor David Jolly.
Republican claims that the public schools are broken—despite record-high graduation rates—are used to justify a separate system of charter schools and subsidies for private schools. "The system isn't broken, but they may break it," Duke education professor Helen Ladd said.
On the second point, Duke historian Robert Korstad traced the battle of conservative and progressive forces in North Carolina to the post-Civil War fusion movement, which brought blacks and moderate whites to power briefly but which met a violent end at the hands of white supremacists in 1898.
Conservatives opposed most government programs, especially to improve the lives of the poor, Korstad said, and prevented blacks and poor whites from voting. "This conservative agenda that's being pushed in Raleigh today is nothing new," he remarked.
Still, the progressive tradition endured under Jim Crow, Korstad said. It resulted in the public health campaigns of the 1910s, the Good Roads program of the '20s, and the state keeping public schools open during the Great Depression. In the post-civil rights era, Gov. Terry Sanford and Gov. Jim Hunt integrated the schools and fought for broad-based education gains and the Smart Start program for needy preschool kids.
"One of our goals," Korstad said, "is to help change the conversation in North Carolina by bringing to life [these] progressive movements and demonstrating that the policies they advanced have made us a better state."
The progressives' position looks dire at the moment, Carter said. Still, progressives should take a page from the Republicans' book. In the mid-'60s, the Republicans looked dead. But they planned for the long haul and "never backed off an issue."
Progressives can rebound the same way, Carter said, by fighting for their principles. "But it requires people to get off their butt—not to come to a meeting, but to stay committed over time."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Screw the voters and squash their souls."