In June, the Supreme Court invalidated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which paved the way for states to move forward with strict new voting laws. The case I’m referring to is Shelby County v. Holder. Many states with Republican controlled legislatures and Republican governors, including North Carolina, did just that. They swiftly began to debate and pass sweeping and extremely restrictive new pieces of legislation. For instance, the new law bans students from using their state issued student ID’s to vote. It remains to be seen whether these laws will be upheld or struck down by courts under other provisions of the Voting Rights Act. But, one thing is clear, by installing new Republican Board of Elections personnel – who are using their power to block students from voting on residency grounds – North Carolina’s leadership has gone one step too far. Blocking students from voting at the colleges they attend blatantly violates the Constitution. It’s as though NC stands for No Constitution will stop us. Not only is this practice illegal and brazenly unconstitutional, it is also discriminatory and morally wrong.
The problem started when an Elizabeth City State University student, Montravias King, attempted to run for Elizabeth City city council. After King, who has been living, working, studying, and voting in Elizabeth City since 2009, announced he would be running for office, Pasquotank County GOP Chair Pete Gilbert challenged his candidacy on the grounds he was not a permanent resident. Subsequently, The Pasquotank County Board of Elections, on a party-line 2-1 vote, ruled that King had not proven his permanent residency at ECSU and was not eligible to run for an Elizabeth City city council seat in the 4th Ward. Since residency for running for office is the same as residency for voting, the Board of Elections has essentially ruled that students are no longer eligible to vote where they attend college, because they are not permanent residents. Following the decision, the head of the county’s Republican Party said he planned to challenge the voter registrations of more students at the historically black university ahead of upcoming elections.
For a party that claims to respect the Constitution, North Carolina Republicans respect it about as much as most 16 year olds respect their parents. Which is to say, not very much at all.
Well, back in 1979, in a case known as Symm v. United States, the Supreme Court explicitly ruled that denying college students the right to vote in the county they go to school in was unconstitutional, when they summarily affirmed the ruling of the lower court which stated exactly that. In case you are wondering why the Court did not write an opinion, it is because they agreed with the lower court and had no other comments; except for Justice Rhenquist, who dissented because he believed the District Court had mistakenly exercised jurisdiction over Symm. Thus, NC’s attempt to block students from voting at their colleges is clearly, no questions asked, a violation of the law.
The story goes like this. In a small county outside of Houston, TX, known as Waller, sits Prairie View A&M, a state-supported, predominantly black university. A university where students wanted to vote. In order to vote, the students first needed to register, and a man named Symm was responsible for handling voter registration in the county. When it came to people Symm knew personally and those listed on the tax rolls as owning property in Waller County, Symm would simply have them fill out a state registration form. However, those who Symm didn’t know or who did not own property in Waller were required to complete a residency questionnaire. A questionnaire that specifically asked whether the applicant was a college student and, if so, inquired into the student’s home address, property ownership, employment status, etc.
Fed up with the practice, on October 14, 1976, the Attorney General of the United States filed an action against Symm, Waller County, the State of Texas, and its Secretary of State and Attorney General, alleging that use of the questionnaire denied Prairie View students the right to vote in violation of the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Twenty-sixth Amendments. After hearing testimony on the issue, the District Court found that Symm’s registration practices violated the Twenty-sixth Amendment and permanently enjoined him from using the questionnaire. Symm appealed from that judgment and as I mentioned above, the Supreme Court agreed. Therefore, since 1979, the practice of barring students from voting where they go to college simply because they do not live there all year round has been illegal. Which means it’s still illegal today.
Apparently, North Carolina Republicans never got this memo because for some imbecilic reason, the Pasquotank County Board of Election thinks it is perfectly OK to disqualify these students from voting (it’s not). It’s as if the memo was sent using a telegram, which would make sense, since that is apparently the era North Carolina Republicans still live in. I guess it’s only appropriate that the North Carolina state motto is Esse Quam Videri, which translates into “To Be, Rather Than To Seem,” because the actions the Republican leadership in North Carolina have taken don’t just seem unconstitutional, they are unconstitutional. But hey, at least they are living up to their motto.