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Ari Berman: How Voter Suppression Helped Pave Way for a Legislative Coup in North Carolina

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We turn now to North Carolina, where as many as 39 protesters were arrested Friday at the State Legislative Building. Activists are accusing Republican lawmakers of waging a legislative coup by attempting to strip power from the state’s incoming governor, Democrat Roy Cooper. Cooper narrowly beat Republican Governor Pat McCrory by 10,000 votes last month. In an unprecedented move, Republicans filed dozens of new bills last week during a special session of the General Assembly called to consider relief for Hurricane Matthew victims. We speak to Ari Berman, senior contributing writer for The Nation. His latest piece is titled “North Carolina’s Legislative Coup Shows What Voter Suppression Will Look Like Under Trump.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to North Carolina, where as many as 39 people were arrested Friday at the State Legislative Building. Activists are accusing Republican lawmakers of waging a legislative coup by attempting to strip power from the North Carolina’s incoming governor, Democrat Roy Cooper, who narrowly beat the Republican governor, Pat McCrory, by 10,000 votes last month. In an unprecedented move, Republicans filed dozens of new bills last week during a special session of the General Assembly called to consider relief for Hurricane Matthew victims. The NAACP of North Carolina has decried the legislative actions, describing it as a form of Jim Crow governance. On Friday, the Reverend William Barber, president of Repairers of the Breach and president of the North Carolina NAACP, spoke outside the state Capitol.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER: All political power—this is the Constitution—derives from the people, period. It doesn’t derive—it doesn’t derive from anybody else, but it derives from the people.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Reverend Barber speaking in Raleigh on Friday. You can go to democracynow.org to hear our extended interview with him.

Well, two major bills were approved by the North Carolina Legislature Friday. One of them, which was quickly signed by Governor McCrory, strips future governors of their power to appoint a majority to the state Board of Elections. The number of board members was expanded from five to eight, with the eight members to be evenly divided between the two major parties. It also changes the state court system, making it more difficult for the losers of some Superior Court cases to appeal directly to the Democratic-controlled Supreme Court in North Carolina. A second bill, which has not been signed by the governor, strips the governor of his ability to name members of the boards of state universities, and it reduces the number of state employees the governor can appoint from 1,500, under McCrory, to 425.

For more, we’re joined by Ari Berman, senior contributing writer for The Nation, where he covers voting rights. Berman is the author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. His latest piece headlined “North Carolina’s Legislative Coup Shows What Voter Suppression Will Look Like Under Trump.”

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Ari.

ARI BERMAN: Good to see you again, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I mean, explain what has taken place.

ARI BERMAN: Well, this is unbelievable. And if I can just give you some context, because this is not the first time, unfortunately, that the North Carolina GOP has attacked the right to vote. First off, Republicans were elected to the Legislature in North Carolina with a majority, for the first time since 1870, after the 2010 election. The first thing they did was gerrymander political districts so they would maintain power for the next decade. Those districts have subsequently been struck down for illegal racial gerrymandering in violation of the Voting Rights Act. So the very people that are stripping the Democratic governor from power were illegally elected.

Secondly, after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, the North Carolina Republican Party passed the country’s worst voter suppression law. They didn’t just require voter ID. They cut early voting. They eliminated same-day voter registration. They eliminated preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals said that that law targeted black voters with almost surgical precision and that some parts of the law were as close to a smoking gun as you’ll see in modern times. So, again, they were found guilty of violating the Voting Rights Act again.

Then, even after they had repeatedly lost in court, they closed polling places on Election Day. They restricted early voting hours. Pat McCrory refused for nearly a month to concede to Roy Cooper in the governor’s race. He spread bogus allegations of voter fraud—all of which then culminated in this unbelievable special session stripping the next Democratic governor of his power simply because he was a Democrat.

AMY GOODMAN: And McCrory didn’t concede defeat for almost a month as the Republican governor.

ARI BERMAN: Yeah, and really—and really what McCrory was doing was laying the groundwork for the legislative power grab for future voter suppression efforts. There was no widespread voter fraud in North Carolina or any other state. All of these accusations by the McCrory campaign, by the North Carolina Republican Party, were completely bogus. And what the North Carolina Republican Party has done shows the lie about voter fraud, because stripping the Democratic governor of his power has nothing to do with voter fraud. The fact that there were going to be Democratic majorities on the state Board of Elections, on a hundred local county board of elections, has nothing to do with voter fraud. This is simply about power. They don’t like the fact that they lost the governor’s race, so now they decide to do a legislative coup to strip the next Democratic governor of his power.

AMY GOODMAN: On Friday, protesters rallied in the halls of North Carolina’s Legislative Building in Raleigh after being put out of the General Assembly session. Police were told to arrest anyone who knocked on the door to enter the gallery. This is a North Carolina resident and veteran.

NORTH CAROLINA VETERAN: I fought in Afghanistan.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER: That’s right. Say it, dog!

PROTESTER 1: Yeah!

NORTH CAROLINA VETERAN: I fought in Iraq.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER: That’s right!

PROTESTER 2: Yes!

NORTH CAROLINA VETERAN: I fought for freedom all around the world.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER: That’s right!

NORTH CAROLINA VETERAN: And for me to come home—

REV. WILLIAM BARBER: Come home.

NORTH CAROLINA VETERAN: —and have to deal with what we’re dealing with today—

PROTESTER 2: That’s right!

NORTH CAROLINA VETERAN: —that’s not freedom. That’s fascist!

PROTESTER 2: Yeah!

REV. WILLIAM BARBER: That’s fascist. That’s right. And he can’t even go to the door.

NORTH CAROLINA VETERAN: When I knock on this door, I’m knocking on the door for the millions of people who voted in the state of North Carolina—

REV. WILLIAM BARBER: That’s right.

NORTH CAROLINA VETERAN: —for a governor, for him to be able to have his power—

REV. WILLIAM BARBER: That’s right.

PROTESTERS: Yes!

NORTH CAROLINA VETERAN: —to be able to make the best decisions for education—

PROTESTERS: Yes!

NORTH CAROLINA VETERAN: —for healthcare—

PROTESTERS: Yes!

NORTH CAROLINA VETERAN: —for welfare—

PROTESTERS: Yes!

NORTH CAROLINA VETERAN: —for housing.

PROTESTERS: Yes!

NORTH CAROLINA VETERAN: I didn’t defend my country for somebody to tell us we can’t exercise our constitutional rights. So when I knock on this door today, I knock on this door for freedom!

PROTESTERS: Yeah!

NORTH CAROLINA VETERAN: I knock on this door for democracy!

PROTESTERS: Yeah!

NORTH CAROLINA VETERAN: I knock on this door for North Carolina.

PROTESTERS: Yeah!

AMY GOODMAN: And with that, this military veteran knocked on the door of the gallery and was arrested. Ari Berman?

ARI BERMAN: Well, I think this is a very disturbing preview of what we’re going to see in Trump’s America. I believe the president-elect has very little regard for democracy, whether it’s a fair election or a free press. And we’re seeing this play out right now in North Carolina, where the Legislature brazenly ignored the will of the people and then prevented those very people from being able to protest in a nonviolent manner. So, what are people supposed to do when you elect somebody and then the person you elected is stripped of his power by people who were illegally elected in violation of the Voting Rights Act? You have to wonder: What recourse do we, as citizens, have? So what’s happening in North Carolina is extremely disturbing.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to Michelle Henry, a resident of Kinston, North Carolina. She spoke at Thursday’s NAACP news conference. She’s a victim of the flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew.

MICHELLE HENRY: It’s just disappointing to see the flood of other laws coming behind it. We feel used. If this is a special session, was supposed to be about disaster relief, then why are we still here? The politicians in Raleigh are treating flood victims like a pawn. And I am not your pawn. Major changes should not be did this way. North Carolina is better than that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Michelle Henry, who is a resident of Kinston, North Carolina, who was speaking. She was a victim of the flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew, which was the pretext for the special session. Ari Berman?

ARI BERMAN: Well, it’s unbelievable. What was supposed to help victims of a hurricane became a man-made political disaster. And what we’re seeing is that we had thought that possibly what the North Carolina Republican Party in the North Carolina Legislature would do was try to pack the state Supreme Court, because now there’s a 4-to-3 Democratic majority. That got a lot of outcry in advance. So then they put—

AMY GOODMAN: Wait. So, explain that. An African-American Democratic judge was elected, making it 4 to 3.

ARI BERMAN: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, Governor McCrory wanted to add two more people to the court. It had been seven people for the last 80 years.

ARI BERMAN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: To change the balance.

ARI BERMAN: Yeah, and they had these bogus arguments that there was too much workload for the court. But everyone knew this was about, again, trying to ignore the will of the people and giving Republicans the majority in a very crucial institution that’s going to hear a lot of these election law challenges. That was scrapped. This idea of stripping the Democratic governor of his powers to appoint majorities all across the state, nobody had even talked about that. And again, it’s like they sit in a room, and they think of the craziest thing they can do to undermine democracy. And then, 48 hours later, they pass it.

AMY GOODMAN: But there will be a special session—special elections next year?

ARI BERMAN: There will be special—

AMY GOODMAN: Because of violations of the Voting Rights Act?

ARI BERMAN: Yes, because 28 General Assembly districts were illegally gerrymandered, there will be special elections that are going to impact the entire state. So the people that did all of this unpopular stuff are going to have to run for election next year.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, very quickly, Jeff Sessions, nominated by Donald Trump to be the attorney general, the Alabama senator.

ARI BERMAN: Well, Jeff Sessions is someone with a very long history of opposition to the Voting Rights Act, someone who wrongly prosecuted black political activists, civil rights activists, for voter fraud. And just given what we’re seeing in North Carolina, the idea that the attorney general of the United States, who may hear challenges like this, is such an opponent of the Voting Rights Act, is such an opponent of civil rights, is very, very disturbing. The Republican Party has institutionalized voter suppression at all levels of government right now. And we really need to pay attention to this and fight it with everything we have.

AMY GOODMAN: Confirmation hearing set for January 10th and 11th for Jeff Sessions.

ARI BERMAN: That’s way too soon. We don’t have nearly enough data on him to be able to analyze his record by then.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it at that but continue to cover these issues, of course. Ari Berman, senior contributing writer for The Nation, where he covers voting rights. He’s the author of the remarkable book Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.

When we come back, well, it’s Electoral College day. We’ll go to Denver, Colorado, to speak with one of the electors.

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