Minister Leslie Watson Malachi’s Remarks at Roanoke Voting Rights Rally

Today, on the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, People For the American Way joins a diverse group of civil rights and voting rights advocates in Roanoke, Virginia to rally for a restored Voting Rights Act (VRA).  Minister Leslie Watson Malachi, director of African American Religious Affairs at People For the American Way, is addressing the crowd. Below are her remarks, as prepared.

Hello everyone. I am Minister Leslie Watson Malachi and I’m the director of African American Religious Affairs at People For the American Way.

It’s been two years since the Supreme Court gutted the crown jewel of the Civil Rights Movement. Two years since Justice Scalia claimed that protecting the right to vote somehow represents “racial entitlement.”

The Voting Rights Act, when it was whole, was one of the most important tools we had for confronting a very ugly entitlement: the entitlement of those who think that certain votes and certain voices should matter more than others. It helped interrupt a phenomenon that is still alive and well – the ongoing devaluation of the votes, and the lives, of Black Americans. The racist massacre at Emanuel AME church in Charleston provided a horrific reminder of that reality.

The VRA gave a sense of security and safety that translated beyond just security and safety in the voting booth. After the VRA, we had the election of first-time African Americans in mayoral and gubernatorial seats post Reconstruction. The Voting Rights Act was more than a piece of public policy. It was a statement, enshrined in law, about the value of African American lives and voices.

So far, Congress has failed to restore that statement, those protections. What kind of message does that send?

Chairman Goodlatte, we are here in your backyard to demand that you and your Republican colleagues do better. Stop ignoring racial discrimination at the polls. Stop ignoring the calls from Americans of all political stripes and restore the VRA.

In the past two years, politicians in cities and states that were once protected by the federal oversight of the original VRA have been passing laws that make it harder for people of color to vote. These politicians didn’t waste any time in turning back the clock on progress we’ve made toward making sure that all Americans can participate in our democracy.

Congress shouldn’t waste any more time in doing just the opposite: restoring the Voting Rights Act and protecting every person’s right to cast a vote that counts.

Fifty years ago, courageous men and women died fighting for these protections. They knew that the right to vote is the most precious right we have in a democracy. We can’t let their legacy come undone.

PFAW

PFAW and Allies Urge New Hampshire Governor to Veto Attack on Voting Rights

On Thursday, People For the American Way members and supporters in New Hampshire joined local election authorities, lawmakers, civil rights groups, and affected voters to call on Governor Maggie Hassan to veto SB 179 and end the rollback of voting rights.

The bill, SB 179, would require voters to live at the same address for 30 days before registering to vote, chipping away at the state’s same-day registration law, and also open up public access to private voter information at the local level.

Over 80 people packed the lobby of the Legislative Office Building, including many state legislators.  Speakers included State Senator David Pierce; Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the ACLU; State Representative and Plymouth State University student Travis Bennett; moderator for the town of Freedom Don Johnson; and Manchester moderator and president of the Manchester NAACP Woullard Lett. They addressed the unconstitutionality of the 30 day waiting period, the fact that there is no evidence of a problem with “drive by voting,” and the bill’s disproportionate effects on students, the poor, and people of color.

 

PFAW

Maryland Governor Vetoes Important Voting Legislation

Last Friday Maryland Governor Larry Hogan vetoed a bill that would allow formerly incarcerated persons to regain the right to vote upon release from prison. The bill had passed through Maryland’s General Assembly with a significant majority. Hogan’s veto sustains current Maryland law, which prohibits people from voting until they have completed their entire sentence – including parole and probation.

This decision impacts approximately 40,000 Marylanders who live, work, and pay taxes in the state. The bill would have both supported formerly incarcerated persons in the reintegration process and addressed the systemic disenfranchisement of ex-offenders. As Maryland Delegates Cory McCray and Alonzo Washington put it:

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.

PFAW advocates in Maryland, and members of PFAW’s African American Ministers In Action, have been organizing with supporters to restore full voting rights to formerly incarcerated persons. They called on local community leaders and state representatives to promote this important cause.

Hogan’s decision is deeply disappointing and disproportionately marginalizes people of color, continuing a legacy of racially discriminatory ex-offender laws. It highlights how harmful the power to veto can be in the wrong hands. But the fight for voting rights for all is far from over, and activists in Maryland and across the country will continue to push to ensure that fundamental democratic rights are protected.

PFAW

“Selma” Release Offers Great Opportunity to Organize Around Civil Rights

On May 5, “Selma” – the award-winning film chronicling the voting rights movement and its violent opposition – will be released on DVD. And while this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the marches from Selma to Montgomery that culminated in the signing of the Voting Rights Act, the fight to ensure that all Americans have equal access to the voting booth continues today. Voter suppression still threatens many Americans’ ability to cast a ballot, and we are still in dire need of a fix for the Supreme Court’s gutting of the VRA in the 2013 Shelby County decision.

“Selma” is an important film for all progressives, and its release presents a great organizing and activism opportunity for voting rights activists. The film’s creators have put together this guide for hosting a “Selma Salon” – a watch party that brings friends, family, neighbors, or colleagues together to talk about and mobilize around civil rights. If you’re interested in hosting your own Selma Salon, check out the guide for tips and discussion ideas.

If you are a teacher (or have a teacher in your life), the Selma4Students campaign is giving every high school in the U.S. a free copy of “Selma” on DVD, along with a companion study guide to help use the film as an educational tool. Learn more at Selma4Students.com.  

PFAW Foundation

Maryland Passes Bill Bolstering Voting Rights for Formerly Incarcerated People

Today the Maryland legislature passed a bill that would allow people to regain the right to vote as soon as they are released from prison. The legislation rights a wrong in current Maryland law, which denies people voting rights until their entire sentence has been completed, including probation and parole. Without this bill, thousands of formerly incarcerated Marylanders — many of whom are people of color — will continue to be needlessly forced to stay home on Election Day.

PFAW activists in Maryland and members of PFAW’s African American Ministers In Action have been working with allies to help change this, calling their state representatives and urging them to support the immediate restoration of voting rights.

Disenfranchising those who have served their time in prison hampers the process of reintegration and shamefully blocks thousands of Americans from participating in elections. It worsens the discrimination already faced by formerly incarcerated people — who pay taxes, work, and contribute to their communities — and it weakens our democracy.

Passage of this bill is a big step forward in the movement for voting rights for all. Now it’s up to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to sign it and help make the state’s democratic process as fair and accessible as possible.
 

PFAW

Supreme Court’s Denial of Wisconsin Voting Rights a Motivator for Millennials

The following is a guest post by Zachary Koop, a 2014 Young People For Fellow.

This past Monday, the US Supreme Court made a troubling decision: it rejected an appeal to overturn Wisconsin’s voter ID law, considered one of the strictest in the nation. In so doing, the justices paved the way for other states to prohibit eligible voters from casting ballots.

As a young, progressive Wisconsin student, my peers and I share the sentiment that our voices are being attacked by Wisconsin’s recent voter ID law. Indeed, this policy disproportionately impacts young voters, especially youth of color. Among voters between the ages of 18-29, 17.3 percent of black youth and 8.1 percent of Latino youth were unable to vote because of inadequate identification, compared to 4.7 percent of white youth. 

Governor Walker claims that subjugation of Wisconsinites is not the intent, but it is unquestionably the impact. This policy threatened to prevent 300,000 Wisconsinites from voting. Inclusion should be an American ideal, but that is clearly not the case today.

This attack on the voting rights is just one example of how the Right is further disenfranchising historically marginalized communities across this country. But despite their intent, these moves are also mobilizing millennials to demand that our democracy include us. While complex legal and legislative processes often make us feel frustrated and powerless, we understand we need to claim our place at the voting booth. As the largest, most diverse and most progressive demographic in history, we have the power to alter the policy and political landscapes in substantial ways – and we’re already doing it.

Millennials are advancing change across the country. I found my own place in the progressive movement thanks to programs like People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For (YP4) Fellowship. Through YP4’s Vote and Courts Matter programs, I learned how to organize my peers, mobilize voters, and came to understand just how important the courts are to advancing (or dismantling) progressive policies.

Because of YP4’s support, this past fall at UW-La Crosse I passed policies through my campus’ student government that enfranchised students during the 2014 midterm elections. By requiring the administration to issue free student IDs compliant with the voter ID law to all students who requested one, running voter registration drives, and more, we helped ensure that 10,000 students could cast ballots during the election cycle. We are now creating a campus voter registration system that is easily accessible to all students and plan to share our tactics with surrounding state universities to make voting more inclusive and widespread amongst students.

Nothing is more voice-squelching than voter ID laws, an economically inefficient policy that marginalizes youth and other minorities. The Supreme Court’s decision is a call to action for Wisconsin millennials to realize that justice does not advocate for itself and that we must incorporate courts activism in our fight for civil rights.

PFAW Foundation

Wisconsin Voter ID Reminds Us of the Importance of Circuit Courts

The Supreme Court this morning denied a request to review the Seventh Circuit's decision to uphold Wisconsin's strict voter ID law. This case shows just how important fair and just courts are to protecting our most important rights, and the consequences of Republican efforts to prevent President Obama from filling circuit court vacancies.

Last spring, a federal district court struck the law down, recognizing that it would have a discriminatory impact on African Americans and Latinos, and that "it is absolutely clear that [it] will prevent more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent votes." Of course, that is no surprise, since that is the unstated purpose of these laws. Fortunately, when Wisconsinites recognized that their rights were being violated, a federal judge was able to make sure that partisan efforts to suppress the vote were not able to overcome our laws protecting the right to vote.

Unfortunately, this decision was reversed by a Seventh Circuit panel consisting of conservative judges nominated by Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush. When the entire circuit was asked to review the panel decision, they split 5-5, just one vote short of preventing those rules from going into effect.

One judge could have really made a difference. And it just so happens that Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson has blocked efforts to fill a longtime vacancy on that court for more than four years, since the day he took office after the 2010 elections. Make no mistake: Johnson and his fellow Republicans preventing President Obama from putting judges on the bench know full well how important the federal courts are, especially the circuit courts.

In fact, the Seventh Circuit is not the only one with a long-unfilled vacancy. Republican senators from Texas, Kentucky, and Alabama have also been blocking President Obama's efforts to nominate highly qualified jurists to fill longtime vacancies on the Fifth, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits. As we have written:

[N]o senator should see President Obama's outreach as an opportunity to coerce him into naming an unacceptable far-right nominee. Keeping the judgeship vacant even longer in the hopes that a future (hopefully Republican) president will fill it is not a reasonable option, serving only to make justice less available to those who need it most. At some point, such senators have two choices. They can agree with the White House on someone everyone can support. Alternatively, they should acknowledge the extensive consultations that occurred and present any concerns about the eventual nominee in public before the Judiciary Committee, where the nominee has a chance to respond.

Either way, Republican senators cannot be allowed to indefinitely prevent anyone from being nominated to fill longtime judicial vacancies.

PFAW

Signs of Progress on Voting Rights for Formerly Incarcerated Persons

Monday night was a big one for voting rights in Maryland. The State Senate passed a bill to loosen voter registration rules for formerly incarcerated persons, allowing them to register upon release from prison, rather than having to wait until probation or parole are complete. A hearing on the House companion bill took place on March 11.

The Washington Post:

Supporters of the legislation said in floor testimony that former prisoners automatically regain a number of rights as soon as they leave incarceration — and that the list should include voting, a way to reintegrate themselves into society.

Plus, they added, many former felons are confused about when exactly they can register to vote and post-prison is the clearest milestone that’s easiest for the state to enforce.

The disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated persons exacerbates the discrimination they face, particularly in minority communities that are disproportionately represented in the system. They work, pay taxes, and are affected by government decisions. They should be able to hold their elected officials accountable for those decisions. They should be able to vote.

It's fitting that Maryland is showing signs of progress just as its US Senators are reintroducing the Democracy Restoration Act in Congress.

Lead sponsor in the Senate, Ben Cardin:

The United States is one of the few Western democracies that allows the permanent denial of voting rights for individuals with felony convictions. State disenfranchisement laws deny citizens participation in our democracy and the patchwork of laws leads to an unfair disparity and unequal participation in Federal elections based solely on where an individual lives, in addition to the racial disparities inherent in our judicial system. Congress has a responsibility to remedy these problems and enact a nationwide standard for the restoration of voting rights.”

Senator Barbara Mikulski:

From suffragettes through Civil Rights, expanding access to the ballot box in America has always been a move in the right direction. Disenfranchising former offenders does a disservice to the very idea of democracy. If an American citizen has paid their debt to society after committing a crime, our focus must be on their rehabilitation and full reintegration into society – voting rights and all.

Both PFAW and African American Ministers In Action support the Democracy Restoration Act.

We'll be watching for new developments in Congress and with the Maryland bill.

PFAW

Iowa's Controversial Voter Purge Will Not Take Effect

Last Friday the 13th a long-running battle to bring controversial voter purges to Iowa ended after Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate declined to continue an appeal launched by his predecessor, Matt Schultz, and the case was dismissed from the Iowa Supreme Court.

The Des Moines Register:

In a statement, Pate said he voluntarily declined to continue the appeal after consulting with the Attorney General's Office and will focus now on "building the most accurate voter registration list for Iowa."

"I will use my authority to the fullest extent of state and federal law to ensure accurate voter lists," Pate said. "There are other ways to accomplish the same goal without pursuing a course with significant legal hurdles."

ACLU of Iowa:

"This is an important victory for the protection of voters’ rights in Iowa," said Rita Bettis, legal director of the ACLU of Iowa. "It means that Iowans will not have to worry about the voter purges we've seen take effect in other states with a disastrous impact, especially for new U.S. citizens and Latinos."

[ . . . ]

Jeremy Rosen, ACLU of Iowa executive director, said "This case is part of a broader effort nationally to push back on unfair voting restrictions by politicians that make it harder for people to vote, who are more likely to be minorities, poor people, the elderly, students, and people with disabilities."

Indeed we must continue pushing back, as it becomes harder to distinguish between margins of victory and margins of disenfranchisement, and as we honor the legacies of Bloody Sunday and the Voting Rights Act.

PFAW Foundation

Big Win for Voting Rights: Oregon Passes New Motor Voter Law

Yesterday the Oregon Senate passed an expansive new voter registration bill, a significant step forward in the fight to make voting easier, more secure, and more accessible for everyone in the state.

The Oregonian explains how the legislation will work:

Under the measure, driver's license data stretching back to 2013 will be used to begin registering Oregon citizens who aren't already signed up to vote. Elections officials will send a postcard to the prospective new registrants giving them a chance to opt out…. The secretary of state's office has estimated that the measure will add about 300,000 to the voting rolls, which now total just under 2.2 million.

Gov. Kate Brown, who as secretary of state supported the bill as a way to make it easier for low-income people and young people to vote, has promised to sign the measure.

With new barriers to voting taking root across the country and voting discrimination still a persistent problem, it can be easy to believe that our country is only turning back the clock on voting rights. But this win in Oregon underscores the fact that when we work together to make it easier rather than harder to cast a ballot, we can set an example of how to strengthen our democracy.

PFAW