A Renewed Cry to #RestoreTheVRA on the Anniversary of the Shelby County Decision

June 25, 2016 will mark the third anniversary of the Shelby County v. Holder decision that gutted the heart of the Voting Rights Act. A coalition of more than 100 organizations, including People For the American Way, are participating in a Week of Action to raise awareness about voter suppression and to pressure Congress to restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act.

In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed in hopes of bringing the United States closer to the promise of a true democracy: a political system in which all people can fairly and easily participate in government, regardless of race. One of the VRA’s most significant protections was found in Section 5, which requires states and localities with a history of racial discrimination in voting to seek federal preclearance to approve proposed changes to their voting process. This preclearance sought to address decades of voting practices that disenfranchised communities of color. The provision worked. For nearly 50 years, the VRA, and in particular, Section 5, helped curtail the disenfranchisement of voters of color and helped expand the electorate so that it became more representative of the populace. It succeeded in helping the United States progress towards a more inclusive democracy.

However, three years ago, on June 25, 2013, democracy in America was dealt a major blow. On this day, the Supreme Court, in its controversial Shelby County v. Holder decision, struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which defined what areas were covered by Section 5 preclearance. States immediately began to implement new voting restrictions, including strict voter identification laws, limitations on early voting, and the elimination of same-day voter registration. These barriers to voting — implemented under the guise of making elections more efficient and limiting so-called “voter fraud” — disenfranchised eligible voters across the country, disproportionally affecting underrepresented communities such as people of color, women, students, the disabled, and low-income individuals. We have already seen the negative effects of these voting restrictions in our midterm elections and presidential primaries.

Come November, the stakes will be raised. As the Leadership Conference Education Fund notes in their new report on the likely impact of the Shelby County decision in this election cycle:

2016 will be the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. It is also an election that could be won or lost in just a few key states – states where minority voters could determine the outcome.

The report notes that five states formerly covered, in whole or in part, by preclearance — Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia — will all see competitive races in the fall, in which voters of color could be decisive. But voters in these states are now without the full protections of the VRA. The Shelby County decision still has very real consequences, and could alter the face of our political landscape in 2016.

As Election Day rapidly approaches, now is the time to call on Congress to restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. The Shelby County decision was a huge setback to American progress towards a truly fair and accessible democracy, but we can move forward again. Legislation aimed at restoring the protections of the VRA is already pending in Congress. Tell your representatives that a democracy in which eligible voters are unable to cast their ballots is a broken democracy, and that it is their duty to help mend it.  

PFAW

VRA on the Brink a Half Century after Freedom Summer

On June 21, 1964, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were murdered in Mississippi while participating in the Freedom Summer campaign to register African Americans to vote.

A year later, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.

Today, their legacy lives on in the fight to ensure that the VRA survives another half century.

The Supreme Court in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder effectively gutted Section 5 of the VRA, which requires certain covered states and subjurisdictions to submit any changes in voting and election laws to the Department of Justice (DOJ) or a federal court for approval before they can go into effect. While the Court did not strike down Section 5 itself, it said that Congress’s previous determination, through the Section 4 coverage formula, as to where Section 5 applied was unconstitutional.

It could not be clearer that the lack of VRA preclearance has left democracy diminished. And with the first presidential election since Shelby County looming large, that point is coming into even sharper focus. Yet Congress has failed to do anything but let the Voting Rights Advancement Act languish, legislation that would replace what the VRA lost and make additional, critical updates.

Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman did not give their lives 52 years ago today so that Congress could allow the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and the voting protections it achieved to continue to unravel. We owe it to them and the countless others who put everything on the line in defense of voting rights to make sure – once and for all – that all eligible citizens can register to vote and cast a ballot that counts.

Failing to defend the right to vote is simply not an option.

It wasn't then. It isn't now.

PFAW

Democracy Awakens in Historic Mobilization Weekend

This past weekend something truly historic was set in motion. The 2016 Democracy Awakening was a first-of-its-kind event, uniting multiple movements working to promote voting rights and  money in politics reform as well as advocating for fair consideration of the president’s nominee to the Supreme Court. Environmentalists, social justice advocates, organized labor, and communities of faith all came together to demand a government that works for everyone, not just those with the biggest bank accounts who can buy access and influence at the expense of everyone else.

democracy awakening

The Democracy Awakening began on Saturday, April 16, with a day of workshops, trainings and film screenings and concluded on Monday April 18th with a Congress of Conscience where hundreds of people were arrested on the steps of the capitol as a massive crowd rallied alongside in solidarity. The Democracy Awakening peaked on Sunday afternoon, with a rally with thousands in attendance on the National Mall followed by a march in front of the Capitol and Supreme Court. Chants of “Money Out, People In” and “Do Your Job”  could be heard reverberating off federal buildings as marchers took over the streets.

democracy awakening

More than 300 organizations came together to participate in the Democracy Awakening and promote it to their members, demanding that Congress pass four particular bills, two that promote voting rights and two that promote money in politics reform. Additionally the Democracy Awakening demands that the Senate give fair consideration to the President’s Supreme Court nominee, which means hearings and an up-and-down vote.  Many of the organizations that collaborated on this event had previously never worked together, and there is a collective sense that things are just getting started, and that we won’t stop until we have a government that is of, by and for the people.

PFAW

"I Was Arrested to Send a Message to Congress. Here's Why."

Laura Arrested

On Monday, People For the American Way staffer Laura Williamson was one of many activists arrested outside of the U.S. Capitol during the Democracy Awakening protests. Laura writes:

Yesterday I sat on the steps of the U.S. Capitol with 300 others, singing, chanting, and eventually being arrested, to send a message to Congress --  amend the Constitution to get big money out of politics, restore the right to vote for all Americans, and do your job on the Supreme Court. With our arrests, we joined hundreds of others who have been arrested since last Monday as part of the Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening; all told, more than 1,400 people were arrested as part of this escalated effort to save our democracy.

 

As I marched to the Capitol and occupied those steps  --  our steps  --  my spirit was buoyed thinking of the rich legacy of civil disobedience in our country.

The risks we faced sitting at the Capitol were negligible compared to the dangers associated with civil disobedience over the course of our nation’s history. However, the imperiled state of our democracy today must be taken just as seriously. In 2010, the Supreme Court decided in Citizens United v. FEC that corporations could spend unlimited amounts of money to influence our elections, and three years later in Shelby v. Holder it held that the protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, that so many fought and died for during the Civil Rights Movement, were no longer necessary. Both decisions delivered devastating blows to our democracy, but from both new movements of conscience have been born.

 

Read Laura's full story here.

PFAW

Supreme Court Rules that Everyone Deserves Representation

In a great victory for American democracy, the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 today in Evenwel v. Abbott that when states fulfill their Equal Protection requirement to equalize populations within state legislative districts, they can use total population to do so.  The Court rejected the invitation to rule that states must use eligible voters as the measure, rather than total population.

Justice Ginsburg wrote for a six-person majority that included Chief Justice Roberts, as well as Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan.  (Justices Alito and Thomas each concurred with the result but rejected the majority’s reasoning.)  Justice Ginsburg discussed the framers’ decision to write the Fourteenth Amendment to require representational equality in congressional House districts, which undermines the idea that the same amendment would prohibit states from taking the same approach to in-state legislative districts.  She also noted that the Court has never used eligible-voter data or registered-voter data in its analyses of permissible population variances among state districts.  The majority said that for decades in some cases and centuries in others, all states and countless local jurisdictions have used total population (with occasional small exceptions for non-permanent residents such as military personnel from out of state or inmates originally from out of state).

So why does this matter?  As Justice Ginsburg wrote:

As the Framers of the Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment comprehended, representatives serve all residents, not just those eligible or registered to vote. Nonvoters have an important stake in many policy debates—children, their parents, even their grandparents, for example, have a stake in a strong public-education system—and in receiving constituent services, such as help navigating public-benefits bureaucracies. By ensuring that each representative is subject to requests and suggestions from the same number of constituents, total-population apportionment promotes equitable and effective representation.

It’s simple:  Everyone deserves representation.  And that is hard to square with the idea that only eligible voters should be counted.

As we wrote in our preview of the current Supreme Court term:

A ruling in favor of Evenwel would not just be a dramatic shift for the Court: It would be a dramatic shift in American politics, as well, with diverse urban areas losing political power to suburban and rural areas.  It is for this reason that Richard Hasen has called this case “an attempted [partisan] power grab in Texas and other jurisdictions with large Latino populations.”

There are other problems, as well.  For instance, if you base the population count on registered voters or on actual voters, then both systemic and intentional obstacles to voter registration and voting are made even worse, by further weakening the political influence of the targeted communities.  A community that has a lower registration rate or turnout for any reason should not be penalized by losing their right to representation in the legislature.

Today’s majority didn’t just give a powerful defense of using total population.  They also rejected an invitation to address the merits of using eligible voters.  An opinion upholding that approach as constitutional even if not mandatory could have served as a political weapon for conservatives seeking to use that system in the next round of state and local redistricting after the 2020 Census.  But Justice Ginsburg and the rest of the majority refused to take the bait, saying that simply was not an issue before the Court and need not be addressed.

But given her powerful defense of the current system of counting total population, conservatives will be hard pressed to argue for limiting the population count to those who are eligible to vote.  In today’s decision, only Justice Thomas’s concurrence concluded that such a system would be constitutional.

PFAW Foundation

Maryland House Stands Up for Voting Rights for Formerly Incarcerated Persons

2/5/16 Update: PFAW has sent a new veto override message to the Maryland Senate. Their vote was to have taken place on January 21, but was postponed to today, and is now not expected until next week.

In early 2015, the House and Senate in Maryland voted to restore voting rights for formerly incarcerated persons.

Then in May the legislation was stopped in its tracks by a veto from Governor Larry Hogan . . . until now. This afternoon the House voted 85-56 in favor of overriding the veto.

As sponsors Cory McCray and Alonzo Washington wrote in The Baltimore Sun last year:

In representative democracy, the right to vote is a fundamental interest. When folks have their access to the ballot box restricted, they lose their ability to have a voice in the decision making process. These folks are our neighbors, our friends, and even our family members. These folks have children who attend our schools. These folks care about when the recreation centers are closing. They care about high unemployment rates or cuts to program funding. They pay taxes just like the rest of us. Yet ex-offenders are systematically denied the right to vote until after any parole or probation is served.

PFAW members and supporters in Maryland called on delegates to stand up to Governor Hogan.

Tomorrow the Senate is expected to follow suit. We’re poised to win on this critical issue!

PFAW

Merry Christmas, Kentucky: Gov. Bevin Strips Voting Rights of 140,000 and Lowers Minimum Wage

Just in time for the holidays!

Kentucky’s brand new Tea Party governor just broke a campaign promise and REVERSED a positive move by his Democratic predecessor that had restored voting rights to some 140,000 Kentuckians.

Once again, Kentucky will be one of the very few states where people with felony convictions remain disenfranchised after completing their sentences. As ThinkProgress points out, this means that one in five African Americans in the state will be disenfranchised. Studies show that ex-felon disenfranchisement leads to higher rates of recidivism.  

Oh, and Bevin also lowered the minimum wage.

ThinkProgress has more:

In another executive order this week, Bevin reversed former Gov. Beshear’s move to raise the state’s minimum wage for government workers and contractors to $10.10 an hour, bringing it back down to $7.25 an hour. About 800 state workers who have already gotten raises will be able to keep them, but new hires will now have to start at the lower pay rate. In the order, Bevin hinted that he would prefer the state have no minimum wage at all: “Wage rates ideally would be established by the demands of the labor market instead of being set by the government,” he said.

PFAW

PFAW Telebriefing: The Future Of Voting Rights

Last week, People For the American Way hosted a telebriefing for members to review the recent attacks on voting rights and illustrate PFAW’s vision for the future of voting rights in America. PFAW Communications Director Drew Courtney moderated the discussion with PFAW’s Director of Outreach and Public Engagement Diallo Brooks, Executive Vice President Marge Baker, and resident Supreme Court and judicial nomination expert Paul Gordon joining the call.

Drew began the call with an introduction to the consequences of the Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court case, which gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. The decision has resulted in many states passing new legislation that results in voter suppression. Diallo explained that 36 states have passed new restrictions on early voting and more strict voter identification laws, which disproportionately affect people of color, low-income citizens, and women. Supposedly, these efforts attempt to prevent voter fraud. However, voter fraud is not documented as a widespread, or even small-scale, problem anywhere in the country. Marge later elaborated that there is evidence that true intention of passing these laws is to suppress the vote; many right-wing organizations have acknowledged that conservative leverage in elections goes up as the voting populace goes down.

Many members called in with pertinent questions, including one about how members can be more involved in the fight for voting rights. Diallo described how People For the American Way Foundation’s African American Ministers network has been active on the ground helping folks understand their local laws so that they can obtain the correct identification and register successfully. He also suggested people get involved in local groups that do similar work.

Marge detailed how people can get involved in PFAW’s efforts to fight for fair and just courts, which have an enormous impact on voting rights. The winner of the 2016 election will have the opportunity to nominate as many as four Supreme Court justices, and therefore have influence over critical voting rights cases following Shelby County v. Holder. The Supreme Court is not the only place where the fight is occurring. Marge described court challenges to voter suppression laws in numerous lower federal courts and in state courts, further highlighting the importance of courts in the progress for voting rights.

Diallo ended the call on a positive note, describing recent municipal and state-level expansions to early voting and motor voter laws, which allow citizens to automatically register to vote when they interact with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Listen to the full briefing here:

PFAW

Justice Scalia's Ironic Comments About Democracy

Justice Antonin Scalia had some interesting things to say at a speech yesterday to Georgetown University law students.  The Washington Post reports on Scalia’s response to a question about minority rights:

But a question about whether courts have a responsibility to protect minorities that cannot win rights through the democratic process — the issue that animated the court’s landmark decision this year on same-sex marriage — brought a caustic response.

“You either believe in a democracy or you don’t,” Scalia said. “You talk about minorities — what minorities deserve protection?”

Religious minorities are protected by the First Amendment, Scalia said, and so are political minorities. But beyond that, he asked rhetorically, what empowers Supreme Court justices to expand the list.

“It’s up to me to decide deserving minorities?” Scalia asked. “What about pederasts? What about child abusers? So should I on the Supreme Court [say] this is a deserving minority. Nobody loves them.”

“No, if you believe in democracy, you should put it to the people,” he said.

No, Justice Scalia, if you believe in democracy governed by the Bill of Rights, people have rights that cannot be violated by majorities.  The majesty of the Equal Protection Clause is that it was intentionally written broadly, rather than being limited to certain people.  And it doesn’t have a clause saying “except for gay people.”

In addition, given Scalia’s caustic dissents in cases recognizing the constitutional equality and basic humanity of gay people, it is hardly a surprise that he answered a question implicating LGBT equality by dragging in pederasts and child abusers.  From a legal perspective, can he really not see any difference between protecting innocent but unpopular people who aren’t harming anyone, and policies designed to prevent adults from committing acts of violence against unwilling children?

Legal comparisons aside, why bring up child molesters at all?  For far too long, far right extremists have long peddled the pernicious lie that gay people are inherently a threat to children.  Why did Scalia’s mind go there?  Surely there are other categories of people he could have mentioned to make the same point.

Scalia’s comment about believing in a democracy also has to be taken in context: He voted with the 5-4 majorities in Citizens United (opening up our elections to unlimited corporate and special-interest money) and Shelby County (gutting the heart of the Voting Rights Act and empowering those who seek to win elections by disenfranchising Americans who might vote against them).  And, of course, he was with the 5-4 majority in the ultimate judicial middle finger to democracy, Bush v. Gore.

At the heart of our democracy is the right to vote in free and fair elections.  That means elections without barriers designed to keep the “wrong” people from voting, and elections where the voices of ordinary people are not drowned out by a tiny sliver of phenomenally wealthy and powerful interests.  That is what a healthy democracy looks like, and it makes Scalia’s comments quite ironic.

PFAW Foundation

Restore The Voices Of The Excluded

After more than two years stymied by congressional inaction on voting rights, House Democrats this week renewed their efforts to Restore The Voices Of The Excluded – to #RestoreTheVOTE.

The new legislative mobilization is designed to drive more support to the Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bill introduced this June to restore what the Voting Rights Act of 1965 lost when the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 in Shelby County v Holder, and to make additional, critical updates to the landmark law.

Representative Terri Sewell:

My hope is that by launching #RestoreTheVOTE we gain grassroots support for restoring the right of every American to vote. In order to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act we must get everyday Americans to care and demand congressional action to protect voting rights. We cannot silence ANY voices within our electorate.  We must RESTORE THE V.O.T.E. — the VOICES OF THE EXCLUDED!

Want to get involved?

Sign the PFAW petition telling Congress to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Make sure that your Representative is on H.R. 2867 and that your Senators are on S. 1659.

PFAW