Curtis Shannon Jr., a 20-year-old student in Greensboro, has never taken the right to vote for granted. As soon as he turned 18, he started going to the polls. Shannon, now a junior at North Carolina A&T State University, started voting because of the discrimination and injustice he experienced growing up in Lima, Ohio, he says. One of the young Black man’s earliest memories is of his parents being pulled over by the police.

Later, when Shannon was 17, he was handcuffed in the driveway of his home. Police falsely identified the teenager as a much older Black man seen leaving “a known drug area.” 

“They pulled me out [of my car], put me in handcuffs, said I was a danger to myself,” Shannon says. “I sat in the back of a police car for two or three hours before they let me go to my mom.” 

Until his encounter with the police, Shannon wanted to be an orthodontist, he told the INDY. Afterward, he turned his attention to prelaw. It was fear and frustration that led Shannon to become an activist championing the right to vote.

“There’s so much that’s out of our control,” he says. “[Change] starts locally. Anything you see in your local government, we have the power to control. Disproportionate sentencing, we can change that by the vote, because we’re electing judges, mayors, city officials.”

North Carolina’s history of voter suppression

Voting, however, isn’t always easy, especially in North Carolina. 

As soon as Black men were given the right to vote in 1870, white people in power started pushing back. In the wake of the 15th Amendment, North Carolina and other states passed a series of laws designed to prevent Black people from voting: poll taxes, felony disenfranchisement, and literacy tests, a provision still included in the North Carolina Constitution today despite the fact that it is unenforceable. 

The Jim Crow era lasted almost a century, until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed. North Carolina’s legacy of voter suppression, however, is far from over, says La’Meshia Whittington, deputy director for nonprofit Advance Carolina.

“If those [Jim Crow] tactics are still being used and still working, it’s not history,” Whittington says. “The very Supreme Court cases that were supposed to alleviate burdens [like the literacy provision] are still under attack in 2021.” 

This year alone, five bills were introduced in the Republican-led state legislature to make it more difficult for people, particularly people of color, to vote. One law, if enacted, would prohibit local elections administrators from accepting much-needed private donations, limiting the money available for voter education. Another would likely purge some naturalized citizens from voter rolls. 

The cohort of voter suppression bills also includes the deceptively named Elections Integrity Act, or House Bill 259, which lessens the time available to request and return absentee ballots, making it harder to vote by mail. Under the law, people would have to request mail-in ballots up to two weeks before Election Day. The bill also eliminates the three-day grace period, requiring mail-in ballots to be received by five p.m. on Election Day. 

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, HB 259 is “part of a nationwide, GOP-led backlash to robust turnout by Black, brown, and Indigenous voters in 2020,” often credited for Donald Trump’s loss. Nearly one in five North Carolinians cast their vote by mail in that election. If HB 259 had been in place, more than 31,000 of those ballots would have been rejected, found a study by Western Carolina University.

With such a big push to keep Black people out of elections, it often “feels like you’re running against the tide,” Whittington says.

Solutions

Each new law that limits hours at polling places, removes early voting days, or purges names from voter rolls erodes the right to vote a little more, says Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, communications director for the ACLU of North Carolina. 

“Taking [the laws] one by one, it’s easy to dismiss or not fully account for the impact the policies will have as a whole,” Chicurel-Bayard told the INDY. “But when you put all those things together, it paints a pretty clear picture that North Carolinians’ right to vote is constantly under threat.”

For Chicurel-Bayard, the biggest win for voting rights would be the creation of fair and equal congressional maps. The redistricting that occurs every 10 years has historically been hijacked by party leaders, most recently Republicans, who divide voters so they can stay in power. 

Racial and partisan gerrymandering makes it “harder for voters to hold elected officials accountable,” Chicurel-Bayard says. “Far too often, the outcome of elections is determined far before a single vote is cast.”

Preserving the right to vote doesn’t necessarily require big policy changes, however. Removing small, bureaucratic barriers to voting can also have a big impact, says Caroline Fry, interim advocacy director for Democracy NC

Submitting a mail-in ballot, for example, is currently a multistep process. People have to request a ballot, check their mailbox, and find two people to witness their vote before they mail the ballot back.

“It’s all these little hoops you have to jump through in order to vote,” Fry says. “Those are the things we can really be working on and in some cases, they’re small changes that would have a huge impact on the number of voters who are turning out for elections.”

Democracy NC is calling for the state to make voting by mail easier by eliminating the witness requirement, offering paid postage for mail-in ballots, and installing secure drop boxes for returning ballots. North Carolina is one of only 10 states that forbids counties from offering drop boxes for ballots, according to Fry. 

The nonprofit is also asking that voters be allowed to pick up their mail-in ballots in person and opt in to mail-in voting for future elections instead of requesting a new form each time, as well as asking to lengthen the window for mail-in voting. 

There are dozens of other policy changes the state legislature could enact to make voting easier, Fry says. For people who work two or three jobs, it can be difficult to get to the polls. Creating additional days of early voting on weekends is one of the recommendations from Democracy NC. 

The nonprofit also suggests allowing counties to set flexible voting hours and increasing the number of early voting sites based on population. 

Registering to vote can also be a challenge, Fry says. North Carolina now allows people to register online, but only those with a driver’s license or ID. The state should open online registration to everyone, including those who may be homeless or without a car, according to the nonprofit.

North Carolina could create automatic voter registration (like 20 other states), or allow people to register or update their registration on Election Day (like 18 other states and the District of Columbia). 

Ultimately, legislators should do everything they can to make voting more accessible, including making Election Day a state holiday and creating a new funding source for elections, says Fry. 

“Precincts are [being] consolidated because of a lack of funding,” Fry told the INDY. “[State] legislators swear up and down, ‘Our elections are 100 percent appropriately funded.’ But if you actually listen to the conversation that’s happening at the county board of elections level, that’s not the case.”

On the ground

In the meantime, Whittington and others will keep encouraging people to vote. 

Kate Fellman, founder of nonprofit You Can Vote, is working to empower voters by recruiting “voting ambassadors” like Shannon, the young student activist. Helping new voters establish a voting habit is key to widespread participation in elections, Fellman says. 

“The biggest indicator of future voting is voting,” she says. “If we can get folks to vote in all four elections through 2024, they will all be voters for life.”

The nonprofit focuses on educating new voters and those who may not know they’re eligible, like people who have been incarcerated and don’t know they have the right to go to the polls. Volunteers answer basic but important questions like “When’s the next election?,” “Where do I vote?,” and “How do I register?”

The number one thing on Fellman’s wish list is a “practical civics” class for high school students, where they learn about how to exercise their right to vote. Instead, Fellman’s nonprofit is filling that role, teaching new voters about what’s on their ballot and the steps they need to take to stay registered. 

The nonprofit is also working to correct myths around elections, Fellman says. Narratives that your vote doesn’t matter or that you’re not qualified are false.

“The voters who show up decide the elections. If people hear, ‘No one votes in this,’ they think, ‘Why should I bother?’” Fellman says. 

“You might not care about this candidate, but what you care about in your community is on your ballot … clean drinking water, nondiscrimination policies, affordable housing—these are all things young people are concerned about. They need to know that the way to get better community outcomes is by electing leaders who will really represent their vision for the future.” 

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that under House Bill 259, voters could not request a mail-in ballot after the date of two weeks before Election Day. 


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