While the legal firefighters of the US civil rights establishment train their hoses on North Carolina’s “monster voter suppression” law in a federal trial in Winston-Salem this week, the state’s reactionary forces have set a new blaze in neighboring Greensboro.
During the nearly two-hour wait to get through two security checkpoints to access the courtroom in the federal building on Monday, I chatted with Melvin Montford, executive director of the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute in Raleigh. Montford had testified in the preliminary-injunction phase of the trial last July that the reduction of early-voting days imposed a burden on his efforts to transport low-income voters, predominantly African American, to the polls.
While we were waiting to get into the courtroom on Monday, Montford told me he plans to spend time in Greensboro this summer to help voters navigate the new system, and to monitor potential disenfranchisement. Emphasizing that his organization is nonpartisan with a focus on maximizing voter participation, Montford told me that he fully expects the conservative leadership in the state General Assembly to try to replicate the Greensboro model around the state.
The wide-ranging overhaul to Greensboro’s election system involves expanding the number of districts from five to eight while eliminating three at-large seats, replacing the old primary system with a runoff method and withdrawing the city’s ability to redraw its own election districts. Rammed through by state Sen. Trudy Wade of Guilford County, it gained the support of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and — with some reported arm-twisting — a majority of House Republicans across the state.
The most insidious change might be the introduction of the runoff method. Rather than spell the change out in the legislation adopted on July 2, the bill merely stipulates that a preexisting law on the books, § GS 163-293, applies to Greensboro elections and overrides any other provisions of the law. The applicable law for municipal runoff elections in North Carolina holds that a candidate winning a majority of the vote on the first Tuesday of October shall be declared the winner. Only if one of the candidates fails to win more than 50 percent of the vote will the election go to a runoff, which will be held on the second Tuesday of November.
Got that? That means the deciding election could be the first Tuesday in October, the date traditionally set aside for the primary in Greensboro. By the first Tuesday in November, traditionally the general election in Greensboro municipal elections, the game could be over.
Greensboro’s election overhaul has also captured the attention of the North Carolina NAACP, the lead organization in the Forward Together coalition that is fighting the state’s new election law.
The Rev. William Barber II, the state NAACP president, told WFDD’s Paul Garber that the Greensboro election law is yet another example of state lawmakers not listening to the people.
“They’re bullying,” he said. “It’s straight-out racialized bullying that’s going on in the General Assembly. And they know it’s wrong, but they continue to do it, and that’s why we have to end up in court.”
An ironic footnote to this saga is that Skip Alston, Barber’s predecessor as president of the state NAACP, has expressed support for the new Greensboro election system. Barber defeated Alston during the organization’s annual convention in Greensboro in 2005 — replacing an establishment agenda with a radical and prophetic vision.
The new Greensboro election system imposed by the Republican majority in Raleigh will land in court before the first day of polling on Oct. 6. Greensboro City Council elected to file suit against the Guilford County Board of Elections on Monday, although it is unclear whether the state NAACP will join the city.
City leaders are right to take a stand against the bullying of state lawmakers who plainly don’t care one whit about the wishes of local citizens. But there’s a danger to city leaders and citizens becoming consumed with the fight and neglecting to engage in the contest under the current rules, which could very well be upheld by the courts.
The new runoff system could potentially allow a stealthy and well-organized slate of candidates to, well, run away with the election. Voter turnout for the November general election is typically double that of the October primary because many voters figure they can sit out the first contest and then vote for the two most popular contenders in the final balloting. Of course, under the new system, a candidate could win outright in October, and voters going to the polls in November could discover that there are literally no candidates on their ballots.
It’s imperative that we fight two battles simultaneously. Fight the new election system in court, by all means. But we also need to actively recruit candidates to make sure that every single district race is competitive and goes to a runoff in November. And once filing is complete, absolutely citizens should finance candidates they support, and canvas their neighborhoods to get out the vote. Let’s have a real debate and a real election.
And make the bastards regret it.