When she turned 18, Rosanell Eaton, a young black woman determined to vote, rode in her brother’s mule wagon to Louisburg.
Before she could register, a court clerk explained, “You’ve got to do a whole lot of things.”
Stand against the wall. Arms at your side. Look straight ahead. Recite the preamble to the Constitution without missing a word.
Eaton did as she was told, and the clerk told her mother, “She’s a brave little girl.”
Now 91, Eaton’s mind turns again this week to election law in her native Franklin County. Since 1965, the federal government has overseen the voting process there and in 39 other North Carolina counties. This federal oversight is one of the legacies of the Voting Rights Act passed that year; proponents say it represents vital protection for a fundamental right of citizenship.
The U.S. Supreme Court begins hearing arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit that aims to overturn Section 5 of the law. That passage requires any state, or portion of a state, covered by the act to get federal approval before changing its voting procedures, proving in advance the changes do not discriminate against members of minority groups.
Shelby County v. Holder, out of Alabama, argues that Congress went beyond its authority when it reauthorized Section 5 in 2006, weighing down the states with requirements and outside scrutiny based on outdated information.
Some think it’s outdated
Kinston businessman John Nix was a party in a similar suit that nearly made it to the high court. An unsuccessful candidate for City Council in 2011, Nix opposed partisan elections in the Lenoir County town. The U.S. Department of Justice first rejected a plan to eliminate party-based elections, arguing that nonpartisan elections would discriminate against black voters.
The Justice Department will allow nonpartisan elections this year for the first time, following an election in which a majority-black City Council took office.
“The Jim Crow laws are gone,” Nix said. “No one’s standing at the polls saying you can’t vote. There’s no reason in this day and age that we can’t make up our own mind.”
But Eaton and voters of her generation keep the Jim Crow era in mind, and they warn against any changes to laws that helped kill it.
“We’d be in worse shape than we are,” said Eaton, who traveled to Washington, D.C., to witness the signing of the original act. “They just try to set us back any way they can.”
Section 5 applies to jurisdictions with a history of discrimination, not only against black voters, but also against Latino and Native American citizens.
Nine states are covered in their entirety: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Seven other states are covered only in part: California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, Michigan and New Hampshire.
Forty counties in North Carolina fall under Section 5, most of them in the eastern half of the state. Of those 40, Franklin, Nash, Granville and Harnett counties lie nearest the Triangle.
The Voting Rights Act also allows jurisdictions to bail out of Section 5 oversight once they pass a multifaceted test that shows, among other things, that any voting procedures that restrict or dilute equal access have been eliminated.
Wake County, for example, was released from Section 5 supervision in 1967.
Many court observers predict Section 5 will be ruled unconstitutional.
‘A vital safeguard’
But an ugly history looms over the debate. N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper joined an amicus brief filed with the court that says it is mistaken to call Section 5 overly burdensome, describing it as “a vital safeguard” and “an essential tool for preventing voting discrimination.”
In Franklin County, Eaton has many contemporaries who recall being made to recite the Constitution before being allowed to register.
“I had to work in the fields, and I couldn’t go to school much,” said Carrella Holliday, 85, enjoying a bingo game at the senior center in Louisburg on Tuesday. “I wasn’t allowed to ride the bus.
“But I felt like we had a right to vote. I thought it was the right thing to vote. God didn’t look at color. He didn’t make it so only certain voices had say-so.”
Since that time, Eaton has registered more than 4,000 voters in Franklin, an achievement that brought her an “Invisible Giants” award from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The county has three districts for commissioners’ races with significant percentages of minority residents, said Eaton’s daughter, Armenta, who is chair of the Democratic Party in Franklin.
“It’s very hard to maintain those seats,” she said.
The county has tussled over its districts in recent years, and both black and white residents pointed out that it has successfully elected minority candidates despite a white majority. In 1970, U.S. Census Bureau figures showed the county with 46 percent of its black population older than 18 registered to vote. By 2010, the rate had risen to 83 percent.
On both sides of the debate, people argue that much has changed in North Carolina since 1965. What remains is the question of whether Section 5 made it happen.
Staff researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.