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].
By Erik Lampmann
Norman Lear, more so than almost any other, understands the inspiration, joy, and revitalization to be had by bringing together a diverse and wide movement to share in moments of success -- large and small. This week, I was honored to attend Norman Lear’s 90th Birthday celebration and the kick-off to the Young Elected Officials Network’s national convening. An alum of the Young People For (YP4) millennial fellowship program, I was invited to the event to share my experience and represent young people active in the progressive movement. While being in the presence of celebrities, major donors, and political leaders would give any college student simultaneous sensations of absolute fear and overwhelming excitement, I think the most poignant emotion I felt during the night was a profound sense of purpose, of drive, of calling.
Of the activists and organizers I met Thursday, I was continually impressed not by their successes -- be they electoral, issue-based, or local -- but by their resounding human spirit. From Norman Lear’s keen ability to enrapture a crowd -- whisking them from applause line to somber reflection -- to the YEO members who not only envisioned change but came to embody it within themselves, I was humbled. From talking to students from different campuses about the wins and losses of their organizations this Spring semester to discussing the Presidential Medal Freedom with Dolores Huerta, to hearing Jane Lynch give an interview on the consequences of the Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court case, I was astounded by the grace with which my peers in the movement campaigned for justice with compassion.
I will confess that I am, at times, disillusioned with the progressive movement, in general. As a campus organizer working on progressive public policy and LGBTQ justice in Richmond, VA, I am often disheartened at the gap between what we’ve currently achieved and the ideal that we continue to pursue. While everyday I see the stifling states’ rights conservatism of the former Capital of the Confederacy, local progressive wins seem much slower coming. For these reasons, the reinvigoration of the PFAW Foundation celebration of this past week could not have come at a better time. As I complete a summer research fellowship on political theory and strategize for next year’s mobilizations on-campus, I am reminded of the inclusive, accomplished, and intentional family of YP4 and the dedication of People For the American Way Foundation in the pursuit of justice, equality, and the American Way even despite the challenges ahead.
Indeed, our fight as a movement has never been more necessary or the challenges we face more dire. Most recently, conservative ad hominem attacks on Attorney General Eric Holder continue to distract Congress from meaningful action. Out-of-touch elected officials continue to hold hostage major pieces of policy legislation from confronting the student debt crisis to tackling the federal deficit. Voter suppression bills are -- this very minute -- actively disenfranchising the elderly, youth, and communities of color across the country. Reproductive justice continues to be vilified and erased from popular discourse by those who censure speeches in the Michigan State House, for example, or close all of the abortion clinics in Mississippi simply in order to devalue the personal autonomy of women. Racial profiling continues to make life for undocumented people in Arizona and Alabama that much more difficult. Queer folks continue to challenge a heterosexist culture that seeks to tokenize their experience while the elderly, young people, and the differently-abled are shunned to the margins of political discourse.
Reflecting on the significance of Thursday’s event as well as the struggles to come reminds me of a refrain within this piece, the need for solidarity and union within our movement family. I think my sentiment is expressed best by a quote I first heard at a YP4 training: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win.We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” -- Assata Shakur.
Erik Lampmann is a junior studying political theory and French at the University of Richmond (VA) and a 2011-2012 YP4 Fellow.