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Moral Monday movement looks to show its clout at the polls

The movement that has galvanized progressives in North Carolina faces its toughest test yet: Can it turn the energy that it’s generated into votes?

RALEIGH, N.C. — In April 2013, Republicans in North Carolina came up with an ingenious way to limit student voting. A new proposed GOP bill would remove a tax exemption, worth as much as $1,200, on the parents of students who voted at their campus address, rather than at their family home — a massive disincentive for students to cast a ballot.

Tyler Swanson, a student at North Carolina A&T State University, was stunned. “I thought it was Jim Crow, Part 2,” said Swanson, explaining that the extra cost falls more heavily on less wealthy students, who are more likely to be racial minorities like himself. “If we didn’t speak up, we were just going to let history repeat itself.”

Swanson worked with the burgeoning Moral Monday movement to organize a campus protest. Then the following month, he joined other students in attending a session of the legislature with their mouths taped shut — a symbolic statement on how the bill would silence their voices.

Amid the outcry, Republicans backed down and withdrew the bill. But they forged ahead nonetheless with the nation’s most restrictive voting law, passed last July. That measure, which cut early voting, ended same-day registration, and imposes a photo ID requirement starting in 2016, is being challenged by the U.S. Justice Department, but will likely be in effect this fall.

"As November approaches, Moral Monday faces its toughest test yet: Can it turn the progressive energy that it has generated into actual votes?"'

The voting law was part of a hard-right shift enacted by the North Carolina GOP since it took full control of state government at the start of last year. Republican lawmakers here have since made their mark on everything from education and the environment to taxes, abortion rights and healthcare. In response, the Moral Monday movement — a coalition of civil rights, labor, environmental, and other progressive groups — has organized a series of rallies and protests that, during the past year, have captured national attention and helped mobilize younger North Carolinians like Swanson.

On Thursday, Swanson joined a diverse group of several hundred for a voting rights rally outside the state Capitol — the culmination of a week of action intended to demonstrate the movement's grassroots power in the lead-up to the fall midterms.

"When you run public policy on the premise of a lie, you can't afford to get into the presence of truth," the movement's leader, state NAACP president Rev. William Barber, thundered as protesters tried to stay cool in the sweltering heat. 

But despite the movement's righteous rhetoric and grassroots enthusiasm, as November approaches, it faces its toughest test yet: Can it turn the progressive energy that it has generated into actual votes?

Through ruthless gerrymandering, Republicans have given themselves virtually impregnable majorities in both houses. But if Democrats can harness the movement’s enthusiasm to cut into those margins, they might force the state’s leaders to follow a more moderate course — which would be good news for the millions of struggling North Carolinians left out in the cold lately. A large turnout from the Democratic base would also boost Sen. Kay Hagan, who is fighting to hold on to her seat in one of a handful of races that could determine control of the U.S. Senate next year. She's facing Thom Tillis, the speaker of the state's House of Representatives and a leading figure in rightward march that Republicans have undertaken.

Progressives will need to improve voter turnout — during the 2010 midterms, they mostly stayed home, allowing Republicans to win both houses of the legislature. 

Already, the Moral Monday events have succeeded in portraying lawmakers and Gov. Pat McCrory as extremists, out of step even with most Republican voters in the state. Barber takes some of the credit for McCrory's unpopularity — his approval ratings have been stuck in the low 40s since last summer.

"What we've done is we've shifted the center of political gravity," Barber told msnbc outside the Capitol. "We brought what they did in the darkness into the light."

Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, said his surveys show Democrats poised to make significant gains in the legislature this fall.

"It's giving frustrated voters an outlet to express that frustration," Jensen said of the movement. "And I think that it will pay some dividends in November."

It's also put Republicans on the defensive lately. In recent weeks, legislators moved to the center on two high-profile issues: They raised teacher pay, after last year slashing education funding, and they tightened regulations for dumping coal ash following a massive spill in March. The Moral Monday movement had helped galvanize public outrage in both cases. Political observers say the legislature was looking to neutralize two potentially potent lines of attack for Tillis' run against Hagan this fall.

If the movement can take the next step and send conservative lawmakers a message at the polls this November, it could have an impact beyond the Tar Heel State, serving as a model for progressive organizing efforts nationwide.

"We have inspired a new generation, and we have built a movement that is the South at its best, America at its best," Barber told msnbc.  "A new game is in town."