Today is Election Day in communities across the United States -- in some cases the first since states made big changes to voting laws following the U.S. Supreme Court's June decision striking down a key part of the Voting Rights Act.
Soon after the high court's ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, North Carolina's Republican-controlled legislature passed far-reaching new voting restrictions, including tough photo ID requirements and provisions making it easier to challenge voters' qualifications.
While the photo ID law doesn't go into effect until 2016 and the challenge provisions until next year, the controversy over the changes has heightened concerns about ballot access.
That's why youth voting rights activists with a new group called NC Vote Defenders are stepping up to document problems voters experience at the polls today and to distribute information about the pending changes to the state's election laws. They will be wearing bright orange vests and standing outside the polls in Mecklenburg and Watauga counties.
"We want to make sure that anyone who wants to vote, can," says Jessica Injejikian, a student organizer with the project. "There's a lot of confusion out there, particularly around the voter ID changes -- which don’t actually take effect until 2016."
Home to Appalachian State University, Watauga County landed at the center of the uproar over voting rights in the state earlier this year after its Republican-controlled elections board decided to move an early voting site from ASU's campus to a less convenient off-campus location. Public outcry and an organizing effort by students led to the selection of a compromise location.
Since then, Watauga County residents have asked the state elections board to remove two county elections board members, both Republicans, charging them with "official misconduct, participation in intentional irregularities, unethical actions, and incapacity and incompetency to the discharge the duties of their offices." The divisive behavior of those two board members also led to a scolding by state elections officials earlier this year.
During last month's municipal elections in North Carolina, the NC Vote Defenders monitored precincts and distributed information about the new voting laws in Wake and Pasquotank counties. Pasquotank was also caught up in recent voting rights controversies after purges of voters registered at Elizabeth City State University and a failed attempt by the local elections board to exclude a student from that historically black school from running for city council. That student, Montravias King, went on to win the seat.
The NC Vote Defenders recently held a rally for voting rights on the ASU campus. Participants wore sunglasses to the rally and then removed them to make the point that they will not remain in the dark.
"Courageous young people fought and died for voting rights in North Carolina, the birthplace of SNCC and the Sit-in Movement," says NC Vote Defenders organizer Bryan Perlmutter. "It's our job to defend these gains and others made by those who came before us."