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Voting Discrimination: Still an Obstacle to Democracy

This week, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, a case challenging the protections of the Voting Rights Act. Based on a simple idea, one that is enshrined in our Constitution, the right to vote cannot be denied on the basis of race. It is considered by the Department of Justice to be "the most effective civil rights statute enacted by Congress," prohibiting voting discrimination in order to protect the right to vote for all Americans.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he called the vote "the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice" and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called it the "foundation stone for political action." I call it a sacred right!

The centerpiece of that Act and the case is Section 5. It requires that all or portions of sixteen states with a history and a contemporary record of voting discrimination seek and gain approval federally before they put any changes in election practices into effect. Preclearance as it is known is intended to stop voter disenfranchisement before it can start.

In 1970 and again in 1975, Congress voted to extend the Voting Rights Act. At that time US Representative Barbara Jordan, my (s)hero and co-founder of People For the American Way, sponsored legislation that broadened the provisions of the Act to include Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans.

As recently as 2006, Congress voted overwhelmingly to reauthorize Section 5 of the law with some critics then and now misguidedly asserting that it overstepped its boundaries, that voting discrimination really isn't a problem anymore, or that voting discrimination in other parts of the country somehow delegitimizes Section 5. I'd like to invite those critics to hear directly from people across the country who devoted countless hours to ensuring that marginalized communities were able to vote this past election.

In 2011 and 2012 I organized faith leaders from 22 states in combating voter suppression efforts and turning out the vote among specific communities. This election cycle offered many powerful reminders why Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is still needed. Texas, for example, passed a discriminatory voter ID law that would have required voters to present government-issued photo ID at the polls, which would have especially burdened poor people and people of color. But because Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act still stands, this law was defeated and the right to vote was protected. Reverend Simeon L. Queen of Houston, Texas, a comrade in the struggle, reflected: "It is inexcusable that nearly 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, politicians are still trying to make it harder for African Americans in Texas to vote. I wish the Voting Rights Act wasn't still necessary, but thank the Lord it's still there."

Since 1980 I have been fortunate to work with men and women, some who started before I was born, to fight for laws protecting the right to vote. Despite the commitment of those who devoted their lives to voter protections, the right to vote remains fragile for many Americans. From voter ID laws to restrictions on early voting, as a country we cannot allow anyone to say "this isn't a problem anymore" to communities who are experiencing, as others witness, those problems at the polls each election.

President Johnson called the vote "a powerful instrument," Dr. King the "foundation stone," and for me it's a sacred right for breaking down injustice, removing obstacles to democracy and empowering the dis-empowered. When discriminatory laws threaten Americans' fundamental right to vote, we are called to utilize every tool available. Across the country we have seen the importance of courts in successfully fighting back against voter suppression efforts. Section 5 remains a key to protecting communities, my community from future attempts at disenfranchisement. Hopefully, prayerfully, the Supreme Court will realize this.

 This post originally appeared at the Huffington Post.

 

PFAW Foundation

Sotomayor Calls Out Prosecutor’s Attempt to ‘Substitute Racial Stereotype for Evidence’

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a statement today in connection with the denial of a cert petition for a case from Texas. She agreed with the decision not to hear the appeal, but she recognized the need to also release a statement condemning the offensive, racially charged remarks of a federal prosecutor during a drug-focused trial.  During the cross-examination of a man who testified that he was not part of and did not know about friends’ plan to buy illegal drugs, the prosecutor asked:

“You've got African-Americans, you've got Hispanics, you've got a bag full of money. Does that tell you – a light bulb doesn't go off in your head and say, This is a drug deal?”

Sotomayor called the prosecutor’s comment “pernicious in its attempt to substitute racial stereotype for evidence, and racial prejudice for reason.” She went on:

“It is deeply disappointing to see a representative of the United States resort to this base tactic more than a decade into the 21st century. Such conduct diminishes the dignity of our criminal justice system and undermines respect for the rule of law. We expect the Government to seek justice, not to fan the flames of fear and prejudice.”

Sotomayor’s powerful response highlights the critical importance of diversity in our court system.  As Justice Sotomayor noted in 2001, “our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions.”  During her confirmation, People For the American Way Foundation documented the far right’s vitriolic reactions to Sotomayor’s insightful discussion of the ways in which her life experiences as a Latina woman inform her view of the law. 

But today’s statement is one example of what that looks like in practice.  It highlights what it looks like when a woman of color on our nation’s highest court has the power to call out blatant racism in the judicial system. 
 

PFAW Foundation

Supreme Court to Consider Allowing Even More Money into Campaigns

The Roberts Court says it will consider a case challenging aggregate campaign contribution caps.
PFAW Foundation

The Perils of Teaching About the Bible in Public Schools

Rob Boston at Americans United notes that the Arkansas House just voted to require the state’s Education Board to approve elective classes about the Bible if they meet appropriate standards.  The Supreme Court has said the Bible may be taught about in public schools when “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”

But teaching about the Bible without teaching it religiously is not an easy thing to do. It requires carefully designed curricula, well-intentioned and well-trained educators, and a commitment to meaningful oversight.  People For the American Way was part of a religiously and politically diverse group of organizations that worked together to produce the 1999 publication The Bible in Public Schools, a First Amendment Guide. That guide emphasized that how any such course is taught will determine whether it passes constitutional muster:

When teaching about the Bible in a public school, teachers must understand the important distinction between advocacy, indoctrination, proselytizing, and the practice of religion – which is unconstitutional – and teaching about religion that is objective, nonjudgmental, academic, neutral, balanced, and fair – which is constitutional.

But that’s not how if often works in practice. In 2000, People For the American Way Foundation published a scathing expose, The Good Book Taught Wrong: Bible History Classes in Florida Public Schools. The PFAW Foundation investigation found that “Bible History” classes were often being taught more like Christian Sunday School classes from a sectarian, Protestant perspective. Bible stories were treated as literal history. Among lessons and exam questions asked of students:

  • "If you had a Jewish friend who wanted to know if Jesus might be the expectant [sic] Messiah, which book [of the Gospels] would you give him?"
  • "Compose an explanation of who Jesus is for someone who has never heard of Him."  
  • "Why is it hard for a non-Christian to understand things about God?"
  • "What is Jesus Christ's relationship to God, to creation, and to you?"
  • "Who, according to Jesus, is the father of the Jews? The devil."

That expose led Florida officials to yank those classes and revamp the curricula.

But more than a decade later, similar problems persist, as the Texas Freedom Network documented in a January report that found classes designed more to evangelize students to a literalist, fundamentalist view of the Bible rather than to teach about its role in literature and history. Included in the lesson plans examined by TFN were characterizations of Judaism as a flawed and incomplete religion, Christian-nation approaches to US history, and material “explaining” racial origins via the sons of Noah.

Are Arkansas legislators and education officials prepared to invest in the development of curricula, the training of educators, and meaningful oversight into how the classes are taught?

PFAW Foundation

Election Protection: Our Broken Voting System and How to Repair It

“Although the time in our history has passed when certain Americans were excluded by force of law from electoral participation, endemic yet solvable problems continue to plague our system of elections and prevent too many eligible voters from fully participating in our democracy.”
PFAW Foundation

John Kerry Identifies ‘Deluge of Money’ as Threat To U.S. Democracy in Farewell Speech

In his farewell address to the Senate today, newly confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted three causes of what he called a “dangerous but reversible” decline in our country’s democracy: “the decline of comity, the deluge of money, and the disregard for facts.”

A deluge of money in our democracy, indeed – and often outside, secret money at that.  Twenty one state-by-state reports released this month by People For the American Way Foundation and U.S. PIRG analyzing spending totals from Super PACs, dark money groups, and out-of-state spending in 2012 down-ballot federal races found that on average, a majority of outside election money in these states came from Super PACs.  And in every case, a vast majority came from organizations registered outside of the state. 

John Kerry was right to draw attention to the dangerous influence of money on our democracy.  When big money overwhelms our political system, it is hard to hear the individual voices of everyday Americans.

PFAW Foundation

PFAWF’s Young People For Program Welcomes More Than 115 Student Leaders at Annual Summit

This weekend People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For Program held its 2013 National Summit in Washington, DC.  Attended by 117 young leaders from 64 different universities, this year’s Summit – “Creating Change that Lasts” – was a smashing success. 

Student leaders attended workshops on topics ranging from budgeting to media outreach to succession planning. In addition to the 2013 student leaders, nearly fifty alumni from past years returned to support the weekend’s events.  Presidential Medal of Freedom award recipient Dolores Huerta, women's rights advocate Sandra Fluke, and associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement Ronnie Cho all joined as guest speakers.
 

PFAW Foundation

PFAW Foundation Submits Amicus Brief in Critical Voting Rights Case

Yesterday, People For the American Way Foundation , on behalf of its Young People For program, joined with Demos and several other civil rights groups to submit an amicus brief to the Supreme Court urging it to reject a new requirement in Arizona that requires people to show certain documents proving citizenship when they register to vote. As Demos explains in its press release about the brief, this requirement could severely hamper grassroots voter registration efforts:

The brief filed today details the real-world negative impact that Arizona’s extreme documentation requirements have on the ability of community-based voter registration organizations to register eligible citizens to vote, particularly through registration drives.  Proposition 200 requires that a potential registrant produce a post-1996 Arizona driver’s license, a current U.S. passport, a birth certificate, naturalization documents, or selected Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal identification documents.  Many eligible citizens do not possess these narrow forms of documentation required by the law and, of those who do, many  do not carry them while conducting their daily affairs.  Community-based registration efforts overwhelmingly rely on approaching individuals who did not plan in advance to register at that time or location and who are thus unlikely to be carrying a birth certificate, passport, or other documentation.  Even when a potential registrant does happen to be carrying one of the required documents, logistical hurdles—ranging from an inability to copy documents on the spot to an unwillingness to hand over sensitive identification documents to registration drive volunteers—greatly hinder the ability of community-based organizations to register people in Arizona.  In short, community-based voter registration efforts are made more difficult, less effective, and more expensive as a result of Proposition 200’s citizenship documentation requirements.

The case in question, Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, is one of two critical voting rights cases that the Supreme Court will hear this year. The Court will also be considering a challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires states and counties with a history of voting discrimination to get any changes to voting laws pre-cleared by the Justice Department or a federal court before they can go into effect. That law has helped to deflect numerous challenges to voting rights, including in the lead-up to the 2012 election. In fact, the Arizona law at issue in this case is a perfect example of why our federal voting rights protections should be expanded rather than eliminated.

Young People For fellows across the country worked last year to register and get young voters to the polls.

PFAW Foundation

Martin Luther King, Citizens United and Driving Voters to the Polls

On a weekend that features both the third anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it is a timely moment to "take the temperature" of our democracy. Dr. King once said, "So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself." What is the status of that right today? Or, to pose a broader question: what is the status of our democracy?

In the past year I worked with a network of 1,100 African American churches and 7,000 pastors to educate, motivate, and turn out our congregations and communities on Election Day. We facilitated hundreds of thousands of voter registrations, made more than a million contacts and even transported over 27,000 people to the polls. While we are proud of the work accomplished this year, it is clear to me -- and to many who facilitated get out the vote work -- that our elections aren't working equally well for everyone. More often than not, those for whom they are not working are people of color.

One of the reasons is that Americans -- and especially Americans of color -- are questioning whether our voices can be heard over the noise of massive corporate and special interest political spending in the wake of Citizens United. In the last election, more than 1.3 billion dollars of outside money flooded the airwaves, and voters understand that politicians are paying close attention.

Last year the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law conducted a national survey on American's perceptions of Super PAC spending and the implications for our political system. An overwhelming majority of respondents (77 percent) agreed that members of Congress are "more likely to act in the interest of a group that spent millions to elect them than to act in the public interest." Americans are seeing that excessive special interest spending is overwhelming the voices and priorities of individual voters -- as well they should. I believe that this is especially true for people of color, many of whom are starkly aware of the reality of the lack of power, influence and opportunities often available to us politically.

And as Colorlines' Brentin Mock pointed out, that's all before we even set out to vote. Faith leaders on the ground all across the country who I worked with witnessed the effects of voter suppression tactics such as voter ID laws and early voting restrictions. We all remember seeing photographs of voters standing in six hour long lines until 2:00 am on election night, waiting to cast their ballots even after the presidential election had been called. And a number of new suppressive laws may go into effect this year.

A democracy in which Americans do not have a fair opportunity to have their voices heard -- whether through discriminatory voter suppression tactics or through the overwhelming influence of big money on the political system -- is not a democracy working as it should. It is a democracy in need of healing.

That's why organizers around the country are speaking out this weekend to bring attention to the interrelated attacks on our democracy today. Under the banner of Money Out/Voters In, organizers are hosting "Day of Action" events in more than 76 cities in 33 states. Some of the same faith leaders who devoted their time and energy to GOTV efforts are leading teach-ins this weekend about the dual threats of voter suppression and unlimited corporate and special interest money in politics. As African American faith leaders who value the ideals of justice and fairness, we believe it is our responsibility to advocate for a system that puts electoral power in the hands of everyday Americans rather than corporations.

Perhaps Elder Lee Harris of Jacksonville, Florida -- one of the African American faith leaders organizing voting efforts this fall -- put it best: "We've come too far and fought too hard to let anybody take away our vote again."

This post was originally published at the Huffington Post.

PFAW Foundation

Circuit Court Rejects Attack on Contraception Coverage

The 10th Circuit rejects the argument that an employer's religious liberty is substantially burdened by the contraception coverage requirement.
PFAW Foundation

Looking Back at Voting Rights in 2012

The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing this morning on “The State of the Right to Vote After the 2012 Election.” 2011 and 2012 saw an influx of state laws and administrative decisions designed to make it harder for certain groups of people to vote, actions that we documented in our 2011 report “The Right to Vote Under Attack” and in a 2012 update.

People For the American Way Foundation’s leadership programs were active in combatting voter suppression efforts across the country by getting out the vote among targeted groups. PFAW Foundation’s Young People For program worked with campus leaders across the country to mobilize over 22,000 young voters. And PFAW Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council worked with African-American clergy in 22 states to facilitate 400,000 voter registrations and transport over 27,000 people to the polls.

Minister Leslie Watson Malachi, Director of African American Religious Affairs, submitted testimony [pdf] for today’s hearing about AAMLC’s voting rights work. She wrote:

Across the country, restrictions on voting led to confusion and discouragement among voters. But they also were a powerful motivator, especially for those of us who lived and fought through the Civil Rights Movement. As Elder Lee Harris of Mt. Olive Primitive Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, put it, “We’ve come too far and fought too hard to let anybody take away our vote again.” Our task was to reach out to as many voters as we could to educate them on what they needed to vote and to make sure they got to the polls and stayed there.

Minister Malachi also emphasized the importance of the Voting Rights Act, which will be reviewed by the Supreme Court next year:

In the end, our efforts to educate and organize can only go so far. Equally important in the effort to maintain the right to vote has been the role of state and federal courts, where Americans can turn when powerful forces seek to deprive them of their right to vote. Federal courts play a particularly important role in protecting the guarantees set forth in the Voting Rights Act. From Ohio to Florida to Pennsylvania to South Carolina to Texas, the courts were critical in tamping down efforts to suppress the votes of African Americans and other targeted groups. As the Supreme Court prepares to review Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, this year offered us many powerful reminders that the preclearance provisions of the VRA are still relevant and still vitally necessary. In August, when a federal court struck down Texas’ new voter ID requirement, Rev. Dr. Simeon L. Queen of Prairie View, Texas, offered these words:

“It is inexcusable that nearly 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, politicians are still trying to make it harder for African Americans in Texas to vote.  I wish the Voting Rights Act wasn’t still necessary, but thank the Lord it’s still there. African Americans in Texas have struggled throughout our history to exercise all of our rights as citizens, including the right to vote without unnecessary restrictions meant to discourage and disenfranchise. Today, thanks to the Voting Rights Act, a major threat to that effort has been defeated.”

You can read Minister Malachi’s full testimony here [pdf].

 

PFAW Foundation

Restrictions on Early Voting and Voter Registration Used for Partisan Gain

Florida members of the African American Ministers Leadership Council said they were "appalled but not surprised" by the report and the claims that the restrictions exclusively targeted minority voters.
PFAW Foundation

Young People For Got Out the Youth Vote This November

People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For program was on the ground all across the country these past few months helping young people get out the vote. These efforts paid off: one in two Americans ages 18-29 voted this Election Day, making up 19 percent of the total electorate – an increase from 2008.

Here is a great video telling the story of how this outreach work happened:

This work was centered around a campaign called ARRIVE WITH 5, which encouraged youth, people of color, women, seniors and persons with disabilities to become active participants in the electoral process. ARRIVE WITH 5 asked voters to not only pledge to vote on Election Day, but to list five people they were committed to bringing to the polls with them:

All in all, YP4 helped campus organizers mobilize over 22,000 voters and collected 10,000 voting pledges through the ARRIVE WITH FIVE campaign.

 

PFAW Foundation

Pushing Back on Citizens United With Art

The results of a recent PFAW and unPAC produced art contest are in: a panel of experts (including such luminaries as Shepard Fairey, designer of the famous 2008 ‘Hope’ poster and Jesse Dylan, creator of the ‘Yes We Can’ music video) chose the piece ‘Monopolistic’ by 21-year old Tennessean Landon Wix as winner of a $3,000 prize.

Titled ‘Art > Money,’ the contest’s purpose was to find a piece of art to serve as an iconic image for the need to keep big money out of the American electoral process. Art can play an important role in such a campaign: as Shepard Fairey says, “It’s about using art to push back against the existing power structures in our society and inspiring real change.” In this instance, the American people agree: 80% oppose the infamous Citizens United decision and favor restrictions on the amount of money corporations can spend on elections.

PFAW alerted and encouraged our members to promote the winning image, and as a result of our and other’s efforts, Wix’s image was shared across the country and on the internet by thousands of activists as part of a larger effort to spread awareness about this important issue.

To see more of Wix’s work, visit http://www.landonwix.webs.com/

PFAW Foundation

Supreme Court to Review Voting Rights Act

A lynchpin of protecting the right to vote may fall before the altar of "states' rights."
PFAW Foundation

PFAWF Supports Young People, Communities of Color in Getting Out the Vote This Election Day

Whether by reaching out to people of color, young people, women, or other key communities, People For the American Way Foundation has been on the ground all across the country these past few weeks getting out the vote.

The VESSELS project of the African American Ministers Leadership Council, which is committed to increasing civic participation in communities that have traditionally experienced disenfranchisement and discrimination, has organized GOTV events in more than thirty cities across the country. From Buffalo to Miami, Las Vegas to Baltimore, and many places in between, VESSELS have been organizing in their communities to get people to the polls. Ms. Ruby Bridges spoke at a rally in New Orleans, while Dr. Ralph Abernathy III took the stage in Cleveland. In other towns, volunteers have organized trips to the polls following Sunday worship services and GOTV concerts.

Youth organizers have also been working hard to turn out the vote. Despite the fact that nearly 85% of young people were not reached out to by either campaign, we know from our Young People For (YP4) Fellows that young people are busy organizing. They are centering their efforts around a campaign called ARRIVE WITH 5, because while every vote is powerful, they know that when they ARRIVE WITH 5 (or more!) friends to polls, the impact of the youth vote is magnified. At Pitzer College in California, YP4 Fellows are organizing an ARRIVE WITH 5 caravan to the polls – providing electric go-cart rides from their campus to the polling station. At Oberlin College in Ohio, student leaders are hosting voter information events, phone banks, and dorm storms. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, they sang to get out the vote. Local bands and a cappella groups performed everything from jazz to techno while attendees got excited about making their voices heard on Election Day. And these are just a few of the events YP4 Fellows organized this year, collectively reaching thousands of students across the nation.

People For the American Way Foundation was founded more than three decades ago with a vision of a vibrantly diverse democratic society in which all Americans are encouraged to participate in our nation’s civic and political life. The hard work of PFAWF’s Fellows, VESSELS, and other volunteers this election cycle have helped bring that vision to life in a very real way.

PFAW Foundation