Jolanda Smith, a hair salon owner in Fayetteville, North Carolina, is helping Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan get out the vote.
"The first question I ask my customers is: Are you registered?" Jolanda Smith says.
Smith runs a hair salon on the outskirts of Fayetteville, North Carolina. Her hair is dyed lavender and her arms are covered in heart and shooting-star tattoos. In the lead-up to the midterms, she's lending her storefront to Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan's reelection campaign. Smith passes out sample ballots and flyers and tells customers how to register and where their polling location is. Last Saturday morning, she was talking God and voting as she straightened a customer's hair.
"It's: Are you gonna vote, yes or no?" she says, sectioning off a lock and pulling it through the iron. "God gave us a choice, and the choices are always yes or no. It's not maybe. It's not, 'Let me think about it,' 'cause those are excuses…On down from choosing Christ to voting. You gonna vote? Yes or no?"
IN 2013, North Carolina Republicans, led by Hagan's opponent, state house speaker Thom Tillis, passed a far-reaching voting law that curtails early voting and eliminates same-day registration. The Justice Department sued North Carolina over the law, charging it was discriminatory and would depress minority turnout.
Hagan's campaign knows that black voter turnout could decide her fate—and, by extension, determine which party controls the Senate for the final two years of President Barack Obama's term. If African-Americans manage to turn out at presidential-year levels—if they're at least 21 percent of the electorate—Hagan will probably win, says Tom Jensen, director of the North Carolina-based polling firm Public Policy Polling.
That's why the Hagan campaign, and its coordinated get-out-the-vote organization Forward North Carolina—along with the NAACP, state Democrats, and get-out-the-vote outfits—launched unprecedented efforts this year to mobilize black voters.
The president reminded him to vote this year, he says: "Obama sent me a letter."
Those efforts are paying off. On the first day of early voting last week, 76-year-old Ruben Betts was sitting on the curb in a shopping center parking lot wearing an "I just voted" sticker on his sweater. The president reminded him to vote this year, he says: "Obama sent me a letter." As of Thursday, 24 percent of early voters in North Carolina were African-American, according to records from the state board of elections. That's up from just 17 percent at the same point during the last midterm elections in 2010.
The Hagan field operation, which has 40 offices, 100 staffers, and 10,000 volunteers, is the largest that North Carolina has ever seen in a Senate race. By comparison, the get-out-the-vote campaign for North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall's failed Senate bid in 2010 was almost entirely run by volunteers. "We had no money, I mean no money," says Thomas Mills, a Democratic political consultant who helped coordinate Marshall's field operation. "And maybe five paid staffers. The difference in what they've got now—it's just not even same thing. There's no comparison."
Democrats have spent $1 million on ads aired on black radio stations. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee partnered with the Congressional Black Caucus this month to send black lawmakers on a bus tour through North Carolina and five other battleground states. And Hagan's campaign is collaborating extensively with black clergy across the state and roughly 150 black small business owners like Smith who are helping turn out voters this year.
Smith says the main issue that convinces her customers to go to the polls is health insurance. (North Carolina didn't expand Medicaid, so about 500,000 poor North Carolinians are still without insurance.) Jobs top the list, too. Smith's shop sits on Murchison Road, one of the main drags leading out of Fayetteville. The further you drive from the town center, the less money there is—the storefronts become more faded, the sidewalks get weedier, the landscape grayer. "It's hard to get a job even if you have a degree," she says.
Smith adds that anger over the August shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, will also bring people in her community out on Tuesday. "It was more than just him," she notes, referring to the police brutality she witnesses regularly in her community. "You have some in the system that say, 'I'm gonna hide behind this badge and use it for injustice instead of justice'…To us it feels like it's racist."
"My parents voted til the day they died. I grew up in segregation. I vote every election."
T-omnis Cox says he feels like a potential Michael Brown. A 23-year-old who works at a chicken plant in eastern North Carolina, he was hanging out in front of a corner liquor store in Goldsboro last Thursday evening. "It's hard out here in the world," he says. "Every day, we're ducking from cops, we're ducking from law." Cox says he's going to vote for Hagan because "Republicans don't care about the poor."
Hagan's campaign has also reached out to African-American churches as a key component of its voter mobilization effort, urging pastors around the state to help with voter education and registration.
The Rev. Dumas Alexander Harshaw Jr. says his church in downtown Raleigh, First Baptist—which was founded by freed slaves—has always been political. This election cycle, the church has been helping voters register, and handing out sample ballots as well as guidelines on how and where to vote. Last Sunday, Harshaw invited Dr. Everett Ward, the president of St. Augustine's University, a historically black college in the city, to speak to the members of First Baptist about voting.
"We've seen this movie before," Ward tells the congregation, referring to the slewofpolicies Tillis and his fellow Republicans in the state Legislature have enacted since 2012 that disproportionately harm minorities. "It had the same title in 1895, in 1958, in 1968: 'The South Shall Rise Again.'" A few amens rise from the pews. If North Carolina sends Tillis to Washington, Ward continues, "we will lose more opportunity for upward mobility, access to healthcare will disappear, access to higher education will disappear."
So go vote, he says. "Throughout history…When our people faced discrimination and injustice, we answered the call."
"Will you go?" Ward asks the congregation, and the chapel fills with "Yes." "Will you go?" "Yes."
Not everyone needs to be convinced to exercise their civic duty. "People died so I might have the right to vote," says Mary Bethel, who is lending her Fayetteville storefront to Hagan's ground campaign. Last Friday afternoon, she sat at her desk among stacks of papers, envelopes, Post-its and grandchild photos in her small tax shop on Murchison Road, wearing bright red lipstick and lightly smudged glasses. "My parents voted til the day they died," she adds. "I grew up in segregation. I vote every election."
Tillis' record as A leader of the unpopular state Legislature has made it easier for people like Smith and Ward to get black voters to the polls. "Kay Hagan, to me she's wishy-washy, she's two-faced. But Tillis is an out-out crook," says Michael Curtis, a 65-year-old unemployed former construction worker who lives in Raleigh. Democrats haven't done much for Curtis—he's been out of a job since Obama was elected, and says he doesn't have health care—but he's still voting Hagan. Last year, Tillis voted against expanding Medicaid in North Carolina, which would have provided coverage to a half million uninsured North Carolinians. Tillis led a GOP push to cut funding for substance abuse treatment centers by 12 percent. In 2013, he and his fellow Republicans slashed unemployment benefits for 170,000 North Carolinians and eliminated the state's Earned Income Tax Credit, while cutting taxes for rich people. And Tillis backed the harsh voter suppression law, too.
These bills and others Tillis and fellow Republicans forced through after they took control of both the legislature and the governorship in 2012 led the NAACP's Rev. William Barber to launch the Moral Mondays movement in April 2013. For 74 straight weeks now, protesters have held demonstrations near the state capitol demanding a retreat from the state's sharp right turn.
Now the NAACP is harnessing that anger to get voters to the polls in the most massive mobilization effort the group has ever made in a non-presidential year. Last Thursday, the first day of early voting in the state, the NAACP led 32 marches to the polls—more than in any previous midterm year. Barber's organization is also calling all of the 286,000 African-Americans who voted in 2012 and 2008 but didn't vote in 2010, helping register thousands of new voters, buying radio ads, and reaching out to churches. "African-Americans need to vote because we're the ones who know the most about voter suppression," Barber told Mother Jones.
If Hagan loses, though, it won't be African-Americans' fault. It will be because too many centrist Democrats voted Republican, Barber says. There are 800,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in North Carolina, many of whom are white. "You don't lay the blame of this election on black people."
On Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called on the Government Accountability Office to investigate non-bank companies that service Americans' mortgages, noting in a letter co-signed by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) that an increasing number of lawsuits has been filed in recent years against these firms—which are not regulated as strictly as banks.
Mortgage servicers, whether they are owned by banks or not, handle mortgages after they've been sold to a customer. That means they take care of administrative business including collecting mortgage payments and dealing with delinquent borrowers. What Warren and Cummings are worried about is that the share of non-banks servicing mortgages has grown astronomically—300 percent between 2011 and 2013—and it appears that the increased workload has led to shoddier service.
The rise of the industry, which typically services lower-income borrowers, "has been accompanied by consumer complaints, lawsuits, and other regulatory actions as the servicers' workload outstrips their processing capacity," according to a recent report by the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Last December, for instance, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—the agency Warren helped create—entered a $2 billion settlement with the nation's largest non-bank servicer over mortgage mismanagement. Financial industry watchdogs and consumer advocates have charged that the non-bank home loan servicing companies are often unwilling to work with troubled borrowers to modify mortgages and prevent foreclosures.
In their letter, Warren and Cummings also urge the Government Accountability Office to investigate how consumers might be harmed in the event that a large non-bank servicer collapses during a economic downturn. Non-bank mortgage companies are not subject to the regulations governing banks that perform the same functions, such as the requirement that they hold onto a certain amount of emergency funds in case of a financial collapse.
On Saturday morning, the Supreme Court ruled that Texas' harsh voter ID law could remain in effect for the upcoming midterm elections, potentially disenfranchising some 600,000 mostly black and Latino voters. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the law may be "purposefully discriminatory" and warned that it "likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters." And Ginsburg noted that Texas' 2011 law falls in line with the state's long history of discriminatory voting laws. Here is a look at that history, based on expert testimony by Orville Vernon Burton, a professor of history at Clemson University, and Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:
1865: Voter intimidation. Beginning with emancipation, African Americans in Texas were regularly denied the right to vote, through intimidation and violence, including lynching.
1895: The first all-white primaries begin. In the mid-1890s, Texas legislators pushed a law requiring political parties to hold primaries and allowing those political parties to set racist qualifications for who could participate.
1902: The poll tax. The Legislature added a poll tax to Texas' constitution in 1902, requiring voters to pay a fee to register to vote and to show their receipt of payment in order to cast a ballot. The poll tax was equivalent to most of a day's wage for many black and Mexican workers—roughly $15.48 in today's dollars.
1905: Texas formalizes its all-white primary system. The Terrell Election Law of 1905 made official the all-white primary system, encouraging both main political parties and county election officials to adopt voting requirements that explicitly banned minorities from voting in primaries. The stated purpose of the law? Preventing voter fraud.
1918: Texas enacts an anti-immigrant voting law. The legislation banned interpreters at the polls and forbade naturalized citizens from receiving assistance from election judges unless they had been citizens for 21 years.
1922: Texas tries a new type of all-white primary. In 1918, black voters in Texas successfully challenged a nonpartisan all-white primary system in Waco. The state Legislature got around this snag by enacting a law banning blacks from all Democratic primaries. Because the Democratic Party was dominant in the South at the time, the candidate it selected through its primary would inevitably win the general election. Anyone voting in the party's primary had to prove "I am white and I am a Democrat."
1927: Texas tries a third type of all-white primary. After the Supreme Court struck down Texas' all-white Democratic primaries, the Legislature got crafty again, passing a new law that allowed political parties—instead of the state government—to determine who could vote in party primaries. The Texas Democratic Party promptly adopted a resolution that only whites could vote.
1932: Texas tries again. In 1932, the Supreme Court struck down Texas' white primaries once more. In response, the Democratic state convention adopted a rule keeping nonwhites out of primaries. The high court initially upheld the new system.
1944: And again. The high court eventually overturned the convention-based white primary system in 1944, but party leaders could still ensure that county officials were elected by whites. A nonparty county political organization called the Jaybird Democratic Association had for decades screened candidates for nomination without allowing nonwhites to participate. The Supreme Court only invalidated the practice in 1953.
1970: Texas draws discriminatory districts. The Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that the state's 1970 redistricting lines were intentionally discriminatory. In each redistricting cycle since then, Texas has been found by federal courts to have violated the US Constitution or the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
1971: The state attempts to keep black students from the ballot box. Once 18-year-olds got the right to vote in 1971, Texas' Waller County became a majority black county. To stave off the wave of new African American votes, county officials fought for years to keep students at the county's mostly black Prairie View A&M University from accessing the polls.
1981: Texas draws discriminatory districts again. After the state redistricted a decade later, the attorney general found that two of the new districts were discriminatory and violated the Voting Rights Act. (Since 1976, the Justice Department has issued 201 objections to proposed electoral changes in Texas due to the expected discriminatory effects of the measures.)
2003: And again. In a 2006 ruling, the Supreme Court found that one of Texas' recently redrawn counties violated the VRA.
2011: And again. A year later, a three-judge federal court ruled in Texas v. United States that the state's local and congressional redistricting maps showed evidence of deliberate discrimination.
2011: Texas enacts its infamous voter ID law. The state's voter ID law is the harshest of its kind in the country. Poll workers will accept fewer forms of identification than in any other state with a similar law. Earlier this month, a federal trial court struck down the law, ruling that it overly burdened minority voters. The Supreme Court reversed that court's ruling this past weekend.
Some of the schoolgirls Boko Haram kidnapped in mid-April.
Update, Friday, October 24: The deal reached last week between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram appears to have fallen apart as reports surfaced Thursday that the Islamist militants had kidnapped dozens more women and children in northern Nigeria, and had broken the recently agreed-upon cease fire.
The agreement, announced by the country's defense minister, also involves a cease fire between Boko Haram and Nigeria's military. The government expects the terror group will not back out on the deal. "Commitment among parts of Boko Haram and the military does appear to be genuine," an official with Nigeria's security forces told Reuters Friday. "It is worth taking seriously."
Boko Haram militants abducted more than 300 schoolgirls from Chibok boarding school in northern Nigeria in mid-April, sparking a worldwide outcry and propelling the group onto to the international stage for the first time. Over fifty of the girls escaped early on. The rest have remained in captivity ever since.
Boko Haram, whose name roughly means "Western education is sinful," has been terrorizing Nigeria since 2009 in an effort to return the country to the pre-colonial era of Muslim rule. Over the past half-decade, the Islamist group has killed approximately 5,000 Nigerians the group regards as pro-government in attacks on schools, churches, and mosques, as well as military checkpoints, police stations, highways, and a bus station in the capital city of Abuja.
On Wednesday, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the state's restrictive voter ID law, ruling that it violated the state's constitution. The unanimous decision, which comes just days before early voting begins in the state, could impact a Senate race considered key to a Republican takeover of the Senate.
Arkansas' law, enacted in 2013 after the Republican-controlled legislature overrode the Democratic Gov. Mike Beebee's veto, would have required voters to show a government-issued photo ID at the polls. Studies haveshown that photo ID laws disproportionately burden minority and poor voters, making them less likely to vote. The state Supreme Court ruled that the voter ID law imposes a voting eligibility requirement that "falls outside" those the state constitution enumerates—namely, that a voter must only be a US citizen, an Arkansas resident, at least 18 years of age, and registered to vote—and was therefore invalid.
The court's ruling could help swing in Democrats' favor the tight Senate race between Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor and his opponent, Republican Rep. Tom Cotton.
After the Supreme Court gutted a section of the Voting Rights Act last year, Republican state legislatures around the country enacted a slew of harsh voting laws. Since the 2010 election, new restrictions have been enacted in 21 states. Fourteen of those were passed for the first time this year.
Arkansas was one of seven states in which opponents of restrictive voting laws filed lawsuits ahead of the 2014 midterms. Last week, the US Supreme Court blocked Wisconsin's voter ID law. A federal court last Thursday struck down a similar law in Texas—only to have its ruling reversed this week by an appeals court. The Supreme Court recently allowed North Carolina and Ohio to enforce their strict new voting laws.