By Corey Friedman
In the Jim Crow days of the early 1900s, state officials imposed a poll tax to prevent African-Americans and poor whites from voting. It took a decades-long civil rights struggle and a Supreme Court verdict to reverse the injustice.
Today, some state lawmakers are trying to enact a kind of modern-day poll tax, a barrier to participating in the democratic process that would disproportionately affect North Carolina’s poorest residents, as well as minorities and the elderly.
Senate Bill 287 would take public notices out of local newspapers and hide them on obscure government websites in 10 North Carolina counties, excluding tens of thousands of residents without home Internet access from finding out what their city council or county commission is doing.
It’s being dressed up as an efficient cost-saving measure, and supporters shrewdly accuse us of self-interest because paid public notices generate revenue for newspapers. While papers do stand to benefit if SB 287 is defeated, so do the poorest and least tech-savvy North Carolina residents — and so does democracy.
Before elected boards hold special meetings, vote on a proposal in a public hearing or buy or sell property, they’re required to give their constituents advance notice. Armed with information, residents can call or write their representatives and speak during public meetings in order to make their wishes known.
How can government reach the greatest number of residents? Short of knocking on every last door in the city limits, newspapers remain the obvious answer. State law now requires governments to advertise public notices in “a newspaper of general circulation” published in the area.
SB 287 would allow municipal and county governments in Burke, Graham, Guilford, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Mecklenburg, Swain, Union and Wake counties to post public notices on their own websites instead of advertising in local newspapers.
Trouble is, even in the information age of 2013 when smartphones and tablet computers facilitate near-constant Internet connections for many, there’s still a sizable number of North Carolinians who aren’t online and may not even have a home computer.
In a 2 ½-year-old survey, nearly 30 percent of state residents reported that they didn’t use the Internet at all. That figure is surely shrinking, but not quickly enough to make vital public information available online only, leaving a substantial number of low-tech Tar Heels out in the cold when it comes to their government.
State Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, a Wilson Democrat, shares this concern.
“I’m always concerned about people who don’t have access to computers,” Farmer-Butterfield told The Wilson Times for a Monday story. “How will they get the notices? Why should we cater it to people who have access to computers?”
Even for those of us who are online, the city or county homepage is hardly as heavily trafficked as Google, Yahoo or Amazon.com. Census Bureau figures show that only 7 percent of American adults report visiting a government website every day, and 56 percent of adults said they’ve never viewed a government site.
Farmer-Butterfield and state Rep. Jeff Collins, a Rocky Mount Republican, both opposed a statewide bill for online-only public notices in the General Assembly’s 2011 session. Both lawmakers said they’d probably vote the same way this time around.
But Rep. Susan Martin, a freshman lawmaker from Wilson and a rising Republican star, said she has yet to decide how she will vote on SB 287, which squeaked through the Senate in a 26-23 vote and is now in the House.
“I am not sure where I stand on that legislation,” she said. “I recognize their concern that it costs a lot of money. The question is: What is the best way for the citizens to be informed? That’s the balance.”
We respect Martin’s honesty and implore her to consider the thousands of North Carolinians without Internet access as she makes up her mind. If she truly wants all residents to be in the know when it comes to their local governments, then we’re confident she’ll side with the public and vote against SB 287.
House members sent the bill to the Rules Committee, where we hope it will die a richly deserved death. Committee Chairman Tim Moore, a Republican from Kings Mountain, told us he opposes the bill and will vote against it if it advances to the House floor.
Opponents of online-only public notices aren’t railing against technology. We realize that an ever-increasing number of North Carolinians get their news and information online.
Public notices shouldn’t be an either-or proposition. The information doesn’t belong only online or only in print; it should be readily available in as many forms as possible.
Government must find ways to embrace the information age without leaving non-Internet users in the dust.
[This post originally appeared as an editorial in The Wilson Times.]
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