RALEIGH, North Carolina — Leaders of an annual march and rally to press for what they call progressive policies in North Carolina urged demonstrators Saturday to register voters and help them overcome hurdles at the ballot box, including photo ID.
Aware of a presidential and gubernatorial election year approaching and pending litigation to fight election and redistricting laws, speakers at the "Moral March on Raleigh" reminded the crowd the goals they espoused were inextricably linked to the right to vote. The event, which attracted thousands of people in frigid conditions, ended with attendees filling out pledge cards to vote and help get others to the polls.
"We need to organize if you're serious about winning," said the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP and founder of the march, now in its 10th year.
Republicans in charge of the General Assembly since 2011 have rebuffed most of the policy efforts march organizers seek, which include the expansion of Medicaid coverage, a higher minimum wage, abortion rights and a swift increase in teacher pay and education funding.
GOP legislators also passed an elections overhaul law that requires photo identification to vote for the first time with next month's primary and redistricting maps that helped enable GOP rule. These laws are being challenged in court as discriminatory. Barber said the bad election laws ultimately will be overcome as people opposed to Republican tactics keep showing up to vote.
"This is not time to accept things," Barber said. "When you mess with the right to vote, you mess with the heart of our democracy."
Participants were heartened by news this month that a panel of federal judges struck down the 1st and 12th Congressional Districts as illegal racial gerrymanders. The lawsuit that led to the ruling accused
Republican lawmakers of packing black voters into districts to diminish their influence in surrounding areas.
"I'm certainly happy that the federal court is moving to change that," said demonstrator Jim Fleagle of Raleigh, attending the rally with his wife and 16-year-old daughter. But "I really wish we never really went down that road to start with."
Barber said GOP mapmakers should repent for the maps and voter suppression tactics. Republicans say the maps are legal and fair and people like Barber are misguided. State attorneys have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block a lower-court ruling directing new congressional districts be drawn next week and to allow the primaries to go on under the current maps.
State Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said Saturday that Republican policies, including voter ID, are backed by most residents, as reflected by election results.
The opponents "will lose again because they do not represent a majority of North Carolina citizens," Woodhouse said.
Notable speakers at the event included David Goodman, the brother of Andrew Goodman, one of three civil rights workers killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1964. Farris Barakat, the brother of one of three young Muslims fatally shot in Chapel Hill in February 2014, also warned against bigotry and said politicians who "hatemonger" should be held accountable.
Event organizers predicted 20,000 people in their Raleigh city march application, but Saturday's actual crowd was a small fraction of that amount. Raleigh police don't provide crowd estimates. The largest crowd occurred in 2014, when rally participants took up three blocks of Fayetteville Street. This year, the final rally took up barely one block.