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As the year closes, voter ID laws should not be forgotten

by David Lincoln

Living and attending school in North Carolina over the past three years has been an extremely pleasant experience for this New Jersey carpetbagger. At times I have stopped and wondered if this could really be a state of the Old South, the Confederacy of 150 years ago and of Jim Crow a half-century past. I was excited to cast my ballot in the 2012 presidential election in North Carolina, feeling for the first time that I was in a true “battleground” state, one on the cusp of fully embracing progressive policies.

This past summer however, Republican state legislators sought to step back several decades and disenfranchise minority voters here just as they were prior to the implementation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This effort took the form of the Voter Information Verification Act (VIVA) in North Carolina, another in a long line of similar voter ID laws that sprang up across the South in the wake of a Supreme Court decision to remove Federal oversight from electoral processes in states with a history of suppressing minority voters. It is time to stop mincing words and explicitly call these bills, in every state in which they exist, what they are: a racist symptom of resurgent white nationalism. Here lies its roots, running well over two centuries deep into the Southern landscape, with a recently buried layer — that of voter suppression under Jim Crow — being dug up and repurposed.

Defeated on the field of battle and forced to accept the end of slavery in 1865, the states of the former Confederacy instituted Jim Crow laws in an effort to preserve their ethnocentric, antebellum social norms. Maintaining the elevated cultural status of whites and denigrating African Americans became governmental policy in the South. Among the aspects of Jim Crow that helped Southern whites repress their African-American neighbors were deliberate efforts to prevent them from voting in local, state and national elections. As was done at the close of Reconstruction, physical intimidation and threats of violence were a common tactic, but other barriers appeared as well. Beyond this, though, were literacy tests presented to black would-be voters, replete with a lengthy list of questions on a wide variety of subjects that required answering within a very short amount of time.

The reasoning for these tests, ostensibly, was to ensure the voter was an informed citizen, and failure to achieve a passing score would result in a denial of the ability to vote. White voters were not subject to these tests, and so they functioned exactly as they were intended — as a barrier to African-American voting power. While no legislation directly existed saying that they could not vote, obstacles such as the literacy tests and threats of violence loomed large over any black citizens who sought to perform their civic duty. Institutionalized segregation had worked its way into voting rights, with repression rampant throughout the South. Again it took federal intervention to curtail these atrocious activities, with Congress passing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s, thus rendering both practices illegal.

For a Southern state to roll out a new law that restricts the ability of an American citizen to vote, and one that overwhelmingly affects the African-American community then can be viewed as nothing less than a resurgence of Southern nationalism that comes tinged with all the inherent racism it has brought in the past. And yet, despite the lessons of the past staring North Carolina Republican lawmakers in the face, they still chose to implement such a law, complete with Jim Crow-style false pretenses for voter eligibility given a new shine for the 21 st century.

The implementation of VIVA in North Carolina is an affront to the equality of all Americans guaranteed in the Constitution. Gov. Pat McCrory and his fellow Republicans in the General Assembly have crafted a bill that deliberately targets African Americans for disenfranchisement, and sounds echoes of the Southern nationalism that re-formed in the wake of Reconstruction. VIVA must be struck down, its sister voter ID laws across the country must be struck down, and forward thinking North Carolinians must expose the inherent racism of such policies for what they are, rather than allow them to be a part of the state’s political discourse.

David Lincoln is a senior at Elon University studying history. !

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