By Rachel Fraade

My first year at Duke coincided with the 2012 presidential election. It was the first time I had ever voted. I switched my voter registration from my firmly blue home state to my new home in Durham, hoping I could make a difference here. I walked into the West Union building one afternoon after I had finished class, filled out a ballot, and continued with my day. Because of early voting, I could vote on a day when I had time to do so, rather than being forced to miss class or work. There was a polling place on campus for all students, making it easy and convenient for us to exercise our civic duty. I proudly wore my “I Voted Today” sticker, along with many of my friends, in those few weeks leading up to the presidential election. It felt as though Duke, and the local government that enabled a polling place to be placed on campus, were invested in student voices.

The next time I voted was this past fall, and the circumstances were very different. I was studying abroad, and so I had downloaded an absentee ballot form in August. My host home did not have a printer, so I went to a printing shop to fill out and print my ballot. I bought an envelope and stamp, the only ones I used all semester, and walked a few blocks to find a post office. I was one of less than 5 students on my 33-student program that voted – not because we didn’t want to, but because the absentee ballot system made it difficult to vote without significant advance setup. Even though I went through the effort, I have no idea if my vote was counted – absentee ballots are usually only opened in the case of a very close election.

However, my voting troubles were hardly exclusive to a student studying abroad. In fact, they paralleled those of my peers on campus far more closely than I would have hoped. Early voting was eliminated in North Carolina, as was the polling place on Duke’s campus. Students without cars, the majority of campus, had to find a ride to the polls at a time that was both convenient for them and for the driver. They had to determine their polling places in Durham, a city that many are unfamiliar with. In addition, students who had moved away from East – that is, every single upperclassman – had to reregister with their new addresses. East Campus and West Campus residents had separate polling places. So if you live on West, you can just re-register the week before Election Day, right? Wrong. North Carolina requires that you are registered with an accurate address at least 25 days before an election. At least 48 students were turned away from voting on Election Day because they went to the voting station for East Campus when they lived on West Campus, and vice versa.

These are the most engaged of students – they reported this dilemma after making a significant effort to vote. Most of us wouldn’t even be able to get off campus due to lack of time, transportation, or knowledge. However, the Constitution doesn’t state that only the most engaged and politically active of citizens have the right to vote – it states that all citizens have the right to vote. That means it needs to be possible not only in theory, but in practice, for every American over 18 to vote. Perhaps in some countries voting is a privilege – but in the United States it is a constitutional right, and state governments must treat it as such.

In North Carolina, early voting and same-day registration – in fact, registration within 25 days – are illegal. African-American voters use these disproportionately, meaning that these restrictions disenfranchise a very specific portion of the population of its right to vote. Voters are only allowed to vote within their specific precinct, meaning that someone who lives in Durham but works long hours in Raleigh may be unable to vote at all. Many workers find it difficult enough to get off of work to vote at all, let alone another day to register in advance; this extra travel time makes it near impossible. Eliminating early voting significantly increases the size of voting lines, meaning that a worker who tries to vote on a lunch break won’t have time to do so.

In addition to these restrictions, North Carolina has eliminated pre-registration programs for 16- and 17-year-olds that would allow them to vote once they turn 18. It is prohibited for anyone convicted of a felony to vote until their sentence, which includes probation or parole, is up. Given the racial discrimination in our justice and law enforcement systems, this too deprives disproportionately African-Americans of their right to vote. The state’s voting restrictions originally required specific forms of government-issued identification at the polls, forms which can be prohibitively expensive for low-income individuals. However, this restriction was rolled back following a loud outcry.

These voting laws are not universal across the United States; North Carolina’s voting laws are the most stringent in the nation, and they have not taken lying down. North Carolina progressives have mobilized en masse to fight for their voting rights, protesting and lobbying to roll back the repressive restrictions. From local efforts to register voters and spread information about new restrictions, to Democracy NC’s organizing and research, to federal lawsuits, North Carolinians are fighting to exercise their right to vote.

On Monday, July 13th, over 6,000 North Carolinians and allies gathered in Winston-Salem for a massive march and rally. The 13th marked the beginning of a federal court case, North Carolina NAACP vs. McCrory, to determine whether North Carolina’s voting rights restrictions discriminate against black voters. North Carolina says that the changes were intended to reduce administrative burdens and ensure voter integrity, but many – myself included – see them differently. By discriminating against African-American voters, conservative legislators are able to weaken a liberal base that often votes for worker-friendly, progressive politicians. Though the federal reapproval requirement for voting rights changes was eliminated in Shelby County vs. Holder, the litigants in this case argue that North Carolina should be required to gain preapproval due to the clearly discriminatory intentions.

The case is still ongoing and its outcome unknown, but the July 13th march appears to have been a success. Buses came in from across the state, as Winston-Salem’s downtown was closed off for a march. I found the afternoon powerful; I spent most of my time interviewing individual activists about their efforts, and it was deeply meaningful to witness their combined efforts coming together. Clergy members I had interviewed spoke on the stage, while I ran into friends and allies in the crowd. Yet the afternoon also brought up a number of questions for me. Having interviewed a SNCC veteran immediately before the march, the history of the voting rights struggle was fresh in my mind. As local security forces monitored the march to make sure all went smoothly, I wondered what antagonistic edge activists lose when collaborating with those in power. Nobody wants another Bloody Sunday; yet how truly disruptive is a protest when government employees are the ones supervising it? North Carolina has been touted as our 21st century Selma, but those of us who marched in Winston-Salem did not put ourselves at any physical risk beyond overheating.

I hope, with every fiber of my being, that the 21st century fight for voting rights does not produce another James Reeb, Jimmie Lee Jackson, or Viola Liuzzo. We need not put ourselves in harm’s way to be effective activists, but we must also be honest with ourselves that marches simply aren’t as dangerous as they used to be. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it’s worth considering. Does protest lose some of its raw power as it becomes safer for those involved? It may. That may be a price that movements are willing to pay for the safety of activists; yet some individuals may view their personal security as secondary to the needs of the struggle. There is no perfect balance, especially when human lives are at stake either way. If movements are too risk-averse, they will accomplish little and the violence of society will continue; if they risk too much, activists will face real physical harm.

Despite having conducted over 50 interviews, I don’t seem to be any closer to finding this balance between movement risk and personal safety. After all, if it were that easy to find, there would not be a new hashtag every week for victims of police brutality. The FBI would not be monitoring #BlackLivesMatter activists in the tradition of COINTELPRO’s surveillance of Civil Rights, Black Power, and peace movement leaders. Former SNCC field organizers would not be marching for voting rights yet again, 50 years after they risked their lives to register voters in the Deep South. But our national memory is short, and our empathy is constrained to those whom society finds worthy of full humanity – a group that seems ever shrinking.