Educators at early voting rally in Durham, NC. Photo Credit: NCAE
By Sabrina Holcomb
Despite the Supreme Court’s decision to block North Carolina’s notorious voter I.D. law, NC educators still find themselves battling election roadblocks that are very much alive at the local level.
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When Dave Wils and his fellow Guilford County educators discovered that their county board of elections had cut early voting days from 17 to 10, eliminated Sunday voting, and shrunk the number of available polling sites—including two college campuses and a polling location frequented by African-American voters—they stormed a board of elections meeting.
“We showed up in big numbers and made our displeasure heard,” says Wils, an educator who spoke on behalf of students at the 2016 Democratic convention.
For Wils, an 8th grade social studies teacher and native North Carolinian, access to the ballot is sacrosanct: “One of the lessons my students learn is that the entire American experiment has been based on access to the ballot,” says Wils. “It’s been an ever evolving march towards a more perfect union.”
Wils and other voting rights advocates were initially bolstered when a federal court struck down North Carolina’s anti-voter law for suppressing African-American voter turnout with “almost surgical precision.” Although the court invalidated the law’s strict voter I.D. requirements, it left setting the number of polling places and voting hours to the discretion of local election boards.
Seeing an opening, the head of North Carolina’s Republican Party sent an email to election officials asking them to find party line solutions to limit early voting and access. As a result, North Carolina voters in some counties, particularly college students and minorities, will face restricted access to the polls.
“Lawmakers pass laws that disproportionately affect black and brown students, then make it harder for people of color to vote them out of office,” observes Wils.
Thanks to the vigilance and quick action of educators and community activists, however, a compromise was struck in Guilford County: 10 days out of a 17-day early voting period, voters will have access to Sunday voting and multiple sites, including two college campuses and Barber Park (a predominantly Black polling site).
Guilford County activists are not alone. Educators and community members who made their voices heard at a board of elections meeting in Forsyth County were able to soften restrictions to their county’s election schedule reports Ronda Mays, a longtime voting rights advocate who is president of the Forsyth County Association of Educators in Winston Salem.
Educators across the state are pushing back against election roadblocks in their own backyards while they continue to register new voters, educate the public about issues that impact public education, and mobilize community members to get out the vote and elect pro-public education candidates reports Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators. They’re also working with grassroots organizations to help clear up the confusion around voting requirements for the 2016 election.
So what can educators nationally learn from the experience of Dave Wils and his fellow activists who stood up to their local elections board?
“Showing up is vital,” says Wils. “Keep the pressure on, organize, and take advantage of early voting once it starts. Do everything you can personally to get out the vote. An attack on voting rights is an attack on public education.”