Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and this is The Takeaway. Excuse me while I have a moment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes. See, it's the weekend. Even with all the difficult political news in the world, there's still some good news down here in North Carolina where I live.
Speaker: In North Carolina, judges have issued a ruling that will reinstate voting rights for around 56,000 people with felony convictions.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Under a new ruling, felons who are still on probation or parole can now cast a ballot. If this holds, more than 55,000 people who have not been able to register to vote beforehand, will be able to. Now just to be clear, this is not a radical fringe policy. This is a position consistent with the voting rules in 23 other states and the District of Columbia, but this expansion of voting rights does make North Carolina nearly unique among former Confederate States.
The rest have a variety of more restrictive laws that ban formerly incarcerated citizens from accessing the ballot. At the heart of these restrictions is race. In North Carolina, 21% of the voting-age population is Black, but Black people make up 42% of those disenfranchised by the felony-based voting restrictions. For voting rights advocates, that means this is a moment of celebration.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's also just the latest moment in a long struggle for voting rights in the Tar Heels state.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In 1875, John Heiman became the first Black man elected to the US Congress from North Carolina, but he was defeated after a single term as many gains of the reconstruction era were rolled back in the 1877 compromise. The struggle continued. Starting in 1894, an interracial governing coalition known as the Fusion Movement gained power across the state and it showed how poor people could work across racial lines to gain power through the vote.
But then in 1898, a white racist mob overthrew the elected interracial fusion government of Wilmington, North Carolina in a violent insurrection that ushered in an era of poll taxes, literacy tests, and near-total disenfranchisement of Black North Carolinians. The struggle continued.
In 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC was founded on the campus of Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Five years later, John Lewis was chairman of SNCC when he was brutally beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The Voting Rights Act was passed 6 months later. When Barack Obama was elected as America's first Black president in 2008, North Carolina was rendered blue as a result of the historic Black voter turnout.
But in 2013, The Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby V Holder. The Republican-led North Carolina general assembly nearly immediately passed what was described as "a monster voter suppression law". This monster voter suppression led Mickey Michaux, who is the State's longest-serving Black state legislator to reflect on the long struggle.
Mickey Michaux: We are retrogressing. One of the very first piece of legislation got passed was open registration. Prior to the time, we did not have a mandate. You wanted a registration drag, you had to go to the board of elections and get a registrar if you could find one who would come into the Black community and register folks that way. The legislation I introduced just opened it up completely. I remember one Republican legislator asking me that, "You just wanting everybody to vote?" No.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The struggle continued. Unwilling to simply accept turning back the clock on voting rights, a 21st-century voting rights movement emerged in North Carolina led by Reverend William Barber. Moral Mondays protests drew national attention to the State. In 2016, this new movement defeated the monster suppression law in federal court.
But during the last five years, North Carolina has witnessed continuing attempts to erode the voting rights of its citizens. Yet at every turn, advocates, activists, community, and citizens have continued the long struggle and pushback to protect the vote. This week, they secured a meaningful victory to unlock the vote, which is why it's okay to have a little celebration
Melissa Harris-Perry: Joining me now to discuss the most recent steps in the long struggle is Diana Powell, Executive Director of Justice Served North Carolina, one of the community-based organizations that brought suit against North Carolina in the recent case to expand voting rights. Diana, welcome.
Diana Powell: Thank you, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Also here is Daryl Atkinson, Co-Director of Forward Justice who served as the lead attorney on the case. Daryl, welcome.
Daryl Atkinson: It's great to be here, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Diana, let's begin with you. How did you get involved in this fight to restore voting rights for formerly incarcerated individuals?
Diana Powell: Well, I started out of a personal experience that I had with my niece being involved in the criminal justice system. Watching her go through that system was hardening, and watching other citizens going through the system. Then I decided that I would go to the courtroom and I will continue to bring light to what was happening inside of our courtroom.
Then started working with people that was returning back from being incarcerated and making sure that they can navigate through a productive life because our mission here at Justice Served is to prevent individuals from continuing in that criminal justice system. That's how I got here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Daryl, you were the lead attorney in the case, can you help me to understand a bit about what is the fundamental legal basis for the argument here?
Daryl Atkinson: Sure, Melissa. We finished a week-long trial in the week of August 16. During that trial, the judges got to hear from people directly impacted by North Carolina's Felon Disenfranchisement Law. They got to hear from people like Diana, who run organizations that are assisting returning citizens and registering and giving them education with regards to their voting rights, but whose missions are frustrated by the law because it thwarts what they're trying to do.
We also heard from expert witnesses that detailed the racist history of the law, the current disproportionate racial impact of the law, that thousands of people would vote, but for this law being in place. Finally, we didn't hear from a single witness, not a single piece of evidence was introduced from the state that justified disenfranchising thousands of our citizens who are predominantly African-American.
The judges received all that information and I believe they were compelled to move and restore voting rights to 56,000 folks. A real monumental win for the State of North Carolina, as it represents the largest expansion of voting rights in this State since 1965, since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Diana, let me come back to you. I heard Daryl talk about the ways that not being able to vote actually thwarted the work of organizations like yours. Speak directly to people who say, folks who are on probation and parole don't want to vote. They don't care. This isn't going to make a big difference.
Diana Powell: Well, Melissa, that's where our work come into play, especially when we are boots on the ground educating those individuals, letting them know that people actually died that they can have a right to vote. That's where our power comes in at. When we talk about everyday life movement, this stuff is governed. It comes in by laws and policies that are set in place.
Therefore, we have to continue to educate our community that you have a right to vote. You have a voice within your own community that you can be free. We live in that slave mentality, so, therefore, we got to break those chains, we got to break that mentality and bring unity within our community, and there's no greater weapon that we have than the power of vote to bring a more effective unity within our community.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Daryl, now, as much as this is a celebratory moment for Voting Rights Activists and community activists around issues of incarceration, there is still likely an appeal coming, is that right?
Daryl Atkinson: Sure. The legislative defendants have given notice of appeal. They have a right to do so, but we feel pretty strongly about our case because we proved four major points that even an appellate court is going to have to take notice of. Number one, the history and intent of North Carolina's disenfranchisement regime is steeped in white supremacy, racial terror, and racial discrimination against Black people. That was the original intent of the law and is serving that purpose today.
Number two, the impact of the law produces tremendous racial disparities at the statewide and county level. You mentioned 21% African-Americans represent 21% of the voting-age population, 42% of those disenfranchised Black men represent 9% of the voting-age population, 36% of those disenfranchised. The law is doing exactly what it was designed to do with this original intent.
Number three, we proved that the law disenfranchises thousands of North Carolinians who would vote, but for the law. To your point, the question that you asked Diana about, oh, this group of the population wouldn't vote anyway, that's just not true. Our expert witness put in persuasive evidence that showed that of the current supervised population. 38%, 39% of those folks had registered to vote in the past, and over 20% of them voted in the 2016 election because they were eligible to vote, meaning that they were over the age of 18 and were not serving a felony sentence.
Lastly, the defense did not put in any evidence to justify disenfranchising thousands of people, predominantly African-American, and appellate court is going to have to review that. I really want to hear the legislative defendant's justification for disenfranchising thousands of Black people, every electorial cycle. If the appellate route is how they choose to go, which it seems like they are, we're going to be prepared for those arguments.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Daryl, I love hearing those points and laid out, particularly in that way, because it does offer us so much clarity on the side of both the purposes of the legislative action and also to understand the consequences of this.
Diana, I want to talk for a moment about the criminal justice system in terms-- or the criminal punishment system and how folks end up with felony convictions in the first place. I just want you, if you can help me a little bit here to understand the word felony. I think sometimes people hear the word felony and they presume individuals who are a danger to the communities in which they live. You've been working on this issue for the better part of a decade, help us understand what those words actually mean.
Diana Powell: Well, in my experience in going into the courtroom and started seeing how people were so easily charged and convicted of a felony crime, you have to understand North Carolina is a plea deal state. 98% of our people that are sitting in prison in jail is on a plea deal, guilty or not guilty. One, because they are poor, couldn't afford to hire their own attorney. Didn't understand when those plea deals were coming and what they were being sentenced with.
I was in court just yesterday, watching a young man being sentenced to 25 years for a drug charge because he was a level six felony, because he had these repeated charges of drugs and he was actually begging, "I don't need prison. I need help. I need someone to help me. I'm sick," but they would not even take that into consideration that this man was standing before the judge begging for help versus going to prison.
It's so easy to get a felon on your record, drug charge, larceny, just trying to feed your family, or driving without driver's license and continuing to get those stack charges. It's easy to get in the system. It takes a lifetime to get out of it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Daryl, what difference might it make for those individuals who are still under the supervision of that system to be able to make their voices heard in elections?
Daryl Atkinson: I think it will have a huge difference, Melissa. We know the elections in North Carolina are often decided by razor-thin margins. Take, for example, last election we voted for who would be the chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. 5.3 million votes were cast. The difference between the winner and the loser was a mere 401 votes. Imagine if 55,000 people now have access to that process. That outcome of that election could very well be very, very different.
This is influencing electorial outcomes in this state. It is disproportionately impacting the voting power of the African-American community, because the way that policing happens and the way that the phenomena that Ms. Powell just described, people who are convicted of felonies come from a small subset of neighborhoods. They go back to those small subsets of neighborhoods, which means you can have concentrated disenfranchisement in a county, in a few blocks, in a few neighborhoods, that dramatically impacts the voting power of those communities, which is in violation of Article 1 setion 19 of the North Carolina constitution, because our courts are equal protection clause in the state.
Our courts have interpreted that clause, that it demands that communities have substantial, equal voting power in comparison to one another. For example, if you have one community that has 90% of its people who are eligible to vote, you have another community, and this community, 70% of those people are eligible to vote because that 20% differential is related to people who are disenfranchised. Obviously, the community with 90% has much more voting power than the community with 70%. That's in violation of our North Carolina constitution.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Daryl Atkinson is Co-Director of Forward Justice. Ms. Diana Powell is Executive Director of Justice Served North Carolina. Thank you both for joining us today.
Daryl Atkinson: Thank you for having us.
Diana Powell: Thank you for having us.
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