Municipal elections are nearly upon us. Few events evoke such extreme emotional highs and lows for me.
On the last election day for county commissioners, a gentleman came into the bookstore bemoaning there was no place to find out anything about the local candidates for office. He said he had to just guess because he didn’t know who any of them were. I walked over to the stack of encores on the shelf by the front door.
“There have been interviews with all the candidates for local office in encore leading up to the election,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm and non-confrontational. “The public radio station across the street,” I pointed at the front of the WHQR building, “has hosted public forums for each of the candidates to address the issues. In addition, Star News and Port City Daily have covered all of the candidates, and more forums have been hosted by different organizations throughout the area.”
Please, I prayed, please, tell me I didn’t just sound as condescending and angry as I feel.
“Candidates have Facebook pages for their campaigns that list the basics of their platforms and events where you could meet them personally. There is a lot of information available to you; it doesn’t even require much effort to find it.”
Though the national elections are “the big show,” local elections have always fascinated me. When I was little, it was incredible to me you could actually meet the candidates outside the polls on election day. As I got older, the races became more personal when candidates were family friends and neighbors.
At an early age, I seemed to accept my candidates were rarely going to win. I mean, Jesse Helms was the undefeatable NC senator for over half of my lifetime. Election night was always a big deal in our household; it was more of a holiday than many other days of the year. From a very young age, I worked the poll in our neighborhood, handing out info and advocating right up to the last minute for our candidates and issues. How frustrating to not be able to vote, then; but to be involved in the process was spectacular. After the polls closed, we would go watch the returns come in, or if we couldn’t go in person, we would listen to Donn Ansell reporting live on WAAV. Consolation followed, but occasionally—usually as a result of Laura Padgett—there would actually be a victory celebration.
It was rare but lovely.
There are many factors at play here. Statewide, North Carolina has been grappling with an incredible two-pronged assault on the power of the vote. One piece is the restrictive and undemocratic voter ID laws that have been making rounds in courts for the better part of the last decade. Just to recap the events of the last two years:
May 2017: the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal filed by the state of North Carolina after the federal appeals court struck down the NC voter ID law. As The New York Times noted, the decision “found all five restrictions disproportionately affected African-Americans.” The law’s voter identification provision, for instance, “retained only those types of photo ID disproportionately held by whites and excluded those disproportionately held by African-Americans.”
That was the case, the court said, even though the state “failed to identify even a single individual who has ever been charged with committing in-person voter fraud in North Carolina.” But it did find there was evidence of fraud in absentee voting by mail, a method used disproportionately by white voters. The legislature, however, exempted absentee voting from the photo ID requirement.
(Considering last week North Carolina’s 9th District had to hold another election because the 2018 one was thrown out on the grounds of election tampering—specifically with absentee ballots—it seems to be a rather important observation at this moment in history.)
Undaunted, the NC General Assembly went back to the drawing board and got the voter ID requirement on the ballot for 2018 as a state constitutional amendment.
I am used to disappointment at elections, but this time, North Carolina, you broke my heart. Unfortunately, enough people took the bait and voted to pass the ID amendment. The NAACP and Clean Air Carolina filed a lawsuit to overturn it. On February 22, 2019, Wake County Superior Court ruled in favor of the Plaintiffs, overturning the amendment.
From Ballotopedia: “Judge Collins said, ‘Thus, the unconstitutional racial gerrymander tainted the three-fifths majorities required by the state Constitution before an amendment proposal can be submitted to the people for a vote, breaking the requisite chain of popular sovereignty between North Carolina citizens and their representatives. … Accordingly, the constitutional amendments placed on the ballot on November 6, 2018 were approved by a General Assembly that did not represent the people of North Carolina.”’
Remember the unconstitutional gerrymander piece; it will come up again later.
On February 25, 2019 the NC General Assembly filed with the North Carolina Court of Appeals. On July 5, 2019 it was decided, while the case is being resolved, the voter ID law can be implemented during election time. To be clear, voters will not need an ID during 2019 elections; however, they will in 2020. This would explain why, in the last couple of weeks, readers probably got a piece of mail from the Board of Elections informing what kind of ID is needed in order to vote this fall.
This sort of organized malice does not rely on just one strategy. In addition to trying to limit who can show up to the polls, there has been a long and incredibly skilled effort to make sure politicians select their voters rather than voters select their politicians. The name for that process is called “gerrymandering.”
The word comes from the election of 1812 in Massachusetts. Governor Elbridge Gerry—in spite of an amazing record during the Revolution and having signed the Declaration of Independence and championed of the Bill of Rights—is remembered as the man who created districts for the purpose of serving political ends rather than representing the democracy he had dedicated so much of his life to creating. His name, Gerry, is linked with the image of a salamander because the district created was so misshapen, it looked like a salamander on the map.
As civics class taught us, the Constitution provides for a census to be taken, partly to apportion political representation. In this day and age, there are numerous ways to track data: driver’s licenses, college enrollment, arrest records, property records, the list goes on and on. Drawing and redrawing district maps to benefit one group or another, or gerrymandering, is effective as ever. In North Carolina a three-judge panel ruled the first week of September that out district maps have to be redrawn and in full public view. The mastermind behind the legislative maps that the court ruled to be unconstitutional was the now-deceased Thomas B. Hofeller. Since his death, Hofeller’s archives have begun to reveal the extent of his impact on our legislative process. From The New York Times regarding Hofeller:
“Do not worry about us in North Carolina in terms of redistricting,” he wrote. “Even in the coming political bloodbath we should still maintain majority control of the General Assembly.”
As The Times went on to note, Republican supermajority in the legislature was fine. The 2018 midterms, when Democrats won 51% of the vote statewide should have seen bigger gains. Still the Republican Party won 29 out of 50 state senate seats and 65 out of 120 NC House seats.
The numbers seem perplexing.
Sadly, it is enough to confirm the conspiracy theories that lurk in the back of my mind when watching election returns. But the next day and the next week, after the returns have come in, and the excitement is over, when we sit down and look at the statistics on the Board of Elections website, well, “abysmal” would be an optimistic adjective.
Let’s look back at the 2017 election in New Hanover County: 95,531 people were registered to vote; 14.64% actually voted. Not even 15%—less than a fifth of the registered voters decided the election. Comparatively in 2015, 90,604 people were registered to vote in New Hanover County and 10.45% actually voted.
So there is a part of me in despair. Is it worth pursuing court battles to protect access to the voting booth and fair representation if the electorate does not give enough of a damn to actually show up to the polls?
Show up on Tuesday, November 5. Read up on all council and mayoral candidates at encorepub.com (and this week on pages 8-9). Interviews have been running for the last six weeks.