To mark the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, Sunday’s New York Times Magazine made North Carolina the focus for a sweeping cover story on the 1965 law and the struggle both to create it and preserve it.
The law signed 50 years ago Thursday outlawed the voter suppression tactics of the Jim Crow era and for minorities opened the doors to the polls and to representation.
The focal point of the article was a Winston-Salem courtroom, where last week a federal judge heard final arguments in what could become a landmark challenge to the state’s 2013 voting law. That law ended same-day voter registration, cut the number of early-voting days and, starting next year, requires voter IDs.
But it’s hard to escape the fact that both sides were fighting over a fundamental right most people won’t exercise, especially this year.
Municipal elections will take place around the state this fall. In Mecklenburg County, voters will elect mayors in Charlotte and the small towns as well as at-large members of the school board.
In Charlotte, six Democrats and two Republicans are running for mayor. A record 15 candidates are running for four at-large council seats. Early voting for the Sept. 15 primary starts in less than a month on Sept. 3.
And if Gov. Pat McCrory and N.C. House members get their way, voters across the state also will cast ballots in a November bond referendum for more than $2 billion in road and infrastructure projects.
But how many people would vote?
Probably not many.
▪ In 2013, the last time Charlotte had an open mayor’s seat, only 6.7 percent of city voters went to the polls for the primary. Less than 18 percent voted in the general election.
▪ That year’s turnout was heavy compared with 2011, when 2.6 percent of voters cast primary ballots.
▪ In 2009, only 4.3 percent voted in the primary.
That effectively disenfranchises a lot of voters since the primary is essentially the election in many races, particularly in gerrymandered districts.
Low turnout isn’t unique to Charlotte. According to the state board of elections, the highest turnout in a so-called off-year election was 21 percent in 2002.
And the Bipartisan Policy Center found that nationwide turnout in 2012 was lower than either of the two previous presidential elections, dipping below 60 percent.
This year, the Pew Research Center found that the U.S. ranked 31st in turnout among 34 countries, most highly developed democracies.
“Part of the issue is we have so many elections,” says David McLennan, a political scientist at Raleigh’s Meredith College.
“Also Americans don’t seem to care about municipal elections. They’re the first to complain about every day services, libraries, lack of police protection. And yet we see very low turnout. They don’t see the connection between their own civic participation and the services they’re promised by government.”
Candidates are pragmatic. In low-turnout elections, they target their information to the most reliable voters. That leaves a lot of people on the sidelines.
One of the people featured in the Times was N.C. Rep. Mickey Michaux, an African-American Democrat from Durham. He’s worked to make voting easier ever since he was first elected in 1972.
“For many of us, that right is still precious and we’re going to turn out,” he says. “One day folks will understand that they’ve got to participate in this democracy if they want to keep it a democracy.”