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The voters some would like to forget

By Peter St. Onge
Peter St. Onge
Peter St. Onge is The Observer's associate editor.

Meet Rosanell Eaton. She’s 92 years old and from Louisburg, a town of about 3,300 in northeast North Carolina. She lives in a modest home a few miles from the house where she was born. She’s a real, live North Carolina voter.

Eaton first voted more than seven decades ago, when doing so was a more difficult thing for blacks in the South. How difficult? When she became of voting age, she recalls, Eaton rode with her mother on her brother’s mule wagon to the county courthouse to register. Before young Rosanell could add her name to the rolls, however, a clerk told her to stand against the wall, look straight ahead, and recite the preamble to the Constitution without missing a word.

When Rosanell did just that, the clerk looked to her mother and said: “She’s a brave little girl.”

Now, Eaton is a plaintiff in a lawsuit, one of two filed this week after Gov. Pat McCrory signed one of the most restrictive voting rights bills in the country. According to the suit, the name on Eaton’s birth certificate doesn’t match the name on her driver’s license or the name on her voter registration card. She will, the lawsuit says, incur substantial time and expense to straighten things out and meet the state’s new requirements.

In other words: She’s real. A real victim of a law that will do exactly as it intends: make voting more difficult.

Some don’t want to believe that. All week, supporters of the new law have sung the same chorus we’ve heard for months about disenfranchised voters, the one about how you need a photo ID for everything, and how people who don’t have one just aren’t trying, or how they’re lying. “The claim that citizens are too poor to get an ID is nonsense,” echoed one Observer letter to the editor this week.

It’s fascinating, this simultaneous capacity to doubt and suspend disbelief. Supporters of North Carolina’s voting law are convinced there is rampant in-person voter fraud out there, despite no one being able to find that’s so. But hold up a state Board of Elections analysis that says hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians may not have a photo ID, and well, that just can’t be true.

Some of this disbelief comes from willful ignorance – a chronic blockage of the eyes and ears to any reality that doesn’t fit one’s political narrative. But there’s a bigger blindness happening here. Or maybe it’s nearsightedness – an inability to see circumstances that don’t fit our own. It’s hard to imagine in 2013 that people once lived in such extreme poverty that they had sloppy birth records, if any, or that some didn’t know for sure what year they were born. It’s harder to imagine that extreme poverty exists still, that people live without things most of us consider basic.

But it’s true. In her troubling exploration of poverty in North Carolina, editorial board member Fannie Flono reminded Observer readers last month how bleak life is in pockets throughout the state. More than 14,000 N.C. homes have no indoor plumbing. Hundreds of thousands of people work one or two poor-paying jobs and still live well below the poverty level.

To acknowledge that is a challenge for many, because it also means acknowledging that something is wrong, that there are deep causes of poverty not explained away by the stereotype of the lazy-and-happy-about-it poor. And this week, it means acknowledging that there are people who don’t have the money or the time it would take to stand in line at the DMV or courthouse in order to get a photo ID.

Rosanell Eaton isn’t one of those people, by the way. She will get a proper photo ID, no matter how difficult the state might make it, because she’s angry enough not to bow to this latest round of voter suppression. As she said this week after her lawsuit was filed: “We should not stand idle.”

But the danger is that people will. There will be fragile 80-year-olds who can’t bear the possibility of hours at the DMV. There will be struggling 25-year-olds who can’t afford to miss work waiting in the longer early voting lines this law will bring.

They’re real, too.

But as Rosanell Eaton surely learned decades ago, it’s difficult to get people to acknowledge who you are. Because then they might have to care.

Email: pstonge@charlotteobserver.com
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