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Fifty Years Later, The Fight For Voting Rights Continues In North Carolina

Demonstrators march through the streets of Winston-Salem, N.C., Monday, July 13, 2015, after the beginning of a federal voting rights trial challenging a 2013 state law. Election law experts say the case could determine how far Southern states can change voting rules after the nation's highest court struck down a portion of the federal Voting Rights Act just weeks before the North Carolina law was passed.

CREDIT: AP/Chuck Burton.

On August 6, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) celebrates its 50th anniversary. One of the nation’s most historic and far-reaching pieces of legislation, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ensures that no citizen can be denied the right to vote on the account of race or color—as guaranteed by the 15th Amendment. However, while the anniversary marks half a century of improved voter protections, the fight for truly equal voting rights continues to this day. And the battle is playing out especially vividly in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Over the past month, thousands have rallied in North Carolina around the voting rights trial against North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory and House Bill 589 (formally known as the Voter Information Verification Act). One of the strictest pieces of voting legislation in the country, HB 589 limited opportunities for people to vote by eliminating same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct provisional voting, cutting early voting days from 17 to 10, and stopping pre-registration programs for 16- and 17-year-olds.

The state legislature enacted the bill just two months after the Supreme Court voted 5-4 in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) to overturn section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 centered around an idea called preclearance, which required states with proven records of voter suppression (including North Carolina) to obtain federal approval from the Department of Justice before changing any of their voting laws. The logic behind the provision was that, by creating this extra check, people’s right to vote in states with histories of voter suppression would have an extra layer of protection. Because North Carolina enacted HB 589 right after Shelby County v. Holder, many see it as a less-than-subtle attack on voter rights for people of color and other groups historically disenfranchised.

As a result, groups such as the North Carolina NAACP, The American Civil Liberties Union, League of Women Voters, and the Justice Department are suing North Carolina. Their suit argues that HB 589  discriminates against young people, low-income people, and people of color by cutting opportunities that increase voter turnout among groups historically disenfranchised and imposing new restrictions. Closing arguments were delivered on July 31, and the case is now in the hands of federal Judge Thomas D. Schroeder. Whatever the decision, its implications will extend beyond the borders of North Carolina: HB 589 and its legal battle is a sort of test case that will shed light on the state of voting rights today.

This begs the question: what is the status of voting rights today? Many are calling North Carolina the “new Selma.” Have we progressed since Selma, or are we still fighting the same battles 50 years later?

To many young people, the idea that, like in 1965, we could live in a country where one’s right to vote is threatened because of the color of their skin may seem unfathomable. But like the confederate flag controversy in South Carolina recently reminded the nation, America is still confronting its relationship with race. In this vein, the fight for voting rights cannot be seen as complete, a relic of history: we still experience voter suppression, and the battle for the right to vote for all continues today.

Jazmin Kay is a reporter for Generation Progress, covering voting rights and civic engagement. Follow her on Twitter at @jazminlkay.

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