Shelby County v. Holder

Failing to Defend the Right to Vote Is Simply Not an Option

As we work to ensure not only that President Obama receives legislation without undue delay, but also that whatever language he signs protects as many voters as possible from discrimination, it is important to remember those who died a half century ago fighting for this very cause.
PFAW

New Report Reflects Persistence of Voting Rights Violations

While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) took a giant leap toward reducing voting discrimination, a wealth of evidence today shows that discrimination at the polls persists. A new report by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights documents148 separate instances of voting violations since 2000, with each affecting hundreds to thousands of voters.

The report, The Persistent Challenge of Voting Discrimination, came just days before today’s one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted a key provision of the VRA. The litany of voting rights violations detailed therein underscores the need for reform – now.

Key takeaways gleaned from recent examples:

• Racial discrimination in voting remains a significant problem in our democracy. Nearly 50 years after the enactment of the VRA, racial discrimination in voting remains a persistent problem in many places around the country…

• The problem of racial discrimination in voting is not limited to one region of the country. The examples outlined in this report document instances of voting discrimination from 30 states, representing every region of the country…

• Voting discrimination occurs most often in local elections… They often concern the election of city, county or other local elected officials, where many of the contests are nonpartisan.

• Discrimination in voting manifests itself in many ways, and new methods continue to emerge. Voting discrimination occurs today in both overt and subtle forms.

Here are just a handful of the cases in which systematic discrimination threatened to discourage or sideline voters:

• In 2008, the state of Alaska requested preclearance of a plan to remove polling places in multiple Native villages. The state intended to consolidate predominately Alaska Native voting precincts with those of other communities, creating new polling places that were geographically remote and inaccessible by road. Instead of complying with a “More Information Request” by the Department of Justice regarding the proposed changes, Alaska withdrew their submission.

• Between 2004 and 2011, DOJ alleged that five counties and four cities in California had been in violation of Section 203 of the VRA, citing failures to implement bilingual election programs for language-minority voters, as well as failures to translate election-related materials for precincts with large language-minority populations.

• Between 2002 and 2011, multiple school districts and localities in Louisiana proposed redistricting plans that would have eliminated districts in which an African American majority was able to elect the candidate of their choice. 

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights notes that because the study was only able to take into account reported cases, the statistics are likely a conservative estimate of the real magnitude of the problem.

Sadly, discrimination in the electoral process still happens. Moving forward on legislation to update and modernize the VRA would help return a voting voice to Americans who are too often, even today, marginalized.

PFAW

Cleaning Up the Supreme Court's Democracy Mess

This post was originally published at the Huffington Post.

One year ago this week, the Supreme Court's conservative majority struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and took yet another step toward undermining our democracy. Since then, civil rights leaders have been hard at work trying to clean up the Court's mess.

The Shelby decision was a devastating loss, especially for those who fought to see the original Voting Rights Act enacted. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the sole surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington and a leader of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, accused the Supreme Court of "stab[bing] the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its very heart." Civil rights advocates mourned the naïve assumption that Selma had been relegated to ancient history and that racial discrimination in voting went with it. People For the American Way's director of African American religious affairs noted on the day of the decision: "Those who sided with the majority clearly have not been paying attention, reading the paper, attending community meetings, living in America."

Indeed, anyone who has been paying attention knows that voting discrimination is far from ancient history. A new report by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights found nearly 150 documented instances of voting rights violations since 2000, with each case affecting between hundreds and tens of thousands of voters.

Happily, reform is finally underway in the Senate. On Wednesday, the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on legislation to put the VRA back together again. It's a critically important first step in getting our country's laws back to where they need to be on voting rights protections. But so far House Republican leadership has refused to move forward. Maybe they think that if they pretend a problem doesn't exist, they won't have to fix it.

The push for voting rights protections isn't the only effort underway to clean up the mess the Supreme Court has made of our democracy. With the 2012 election the most expensive in history, this week the Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a proposed constitutional amendment to overturn cases like Citizens United v. FEC, the infamous 2010 ruling that paved the way for unlimited corporate political spending. Like Shelby, Citizens United was a contentious 5-4 decision with a strong dissent. Also like Shelby, it set our democracy back dramatically. Citizens United let corporate bank accounts overwhelm the voices of everyday Americans. Shelby made it easier for state and local governments to create barriers to voting.

But Americans know that the answer to attacks on our democracy isn't despair -- it's action. Sixteen states and more than 550 cities and towns have called for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics like the one moving forward in the Senate, and that number is growing rapidly.

National leaders are also speaking out. President Obama has expressed his support for an amendment to overturn Citizen United multiple times since the decision. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens are just a handful of other high-profile amendment supporters. And earlier this month, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not hold back her disdain for the recent democracy-harming decisions coming from the Supreme Court's majority: "Like the currently leading campaign finance decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, I regard Shelby County as an egregiously wrong decision that should not have staying power."

The Supreme Court has made some very bad calls when it comes to protecting the rights of all Americans to participate meaningfully in our political system. But Justice Ginsburg is right: these wrong-headed decisions shouldn't have staying power. And if the American people have anything to do with it, they won't.

PFAW

Presidential Commission Issues Report on Election Administration

The PCEA recommendations are indeed a welcome addition to the voting rights debate, helping us move closer to the day when every eligible voter can register to vote and cast a ballot that counts. We must keep in mind, though, that the PCEA isn't the last word on American electoral reform. Nor does the PCEA replace what the Voting Rights Act lost after the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder.
PFAW

The Smoking Gun in the Voting Rights Case

Scalia's comments during oral arguments show that he was guided by personal ideology, not the law.
PFAW

Fighting for Voting Rights, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

My family is from Selma, Alabama. My grandmother, aunt and mother (both teenagers at the time) were on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, what the history books now record as Bloody Sunday. Due to the terrible violence that occurred, my grandmother, a nurse, was called to the hospital to help treat the numerous people who had been injured, one of them being Civil Rights icon Congressman John Lewis.

I grew up hearing my family members’ Civil Rights Movement stories, continually in awe of their courage and determination. They had to deal with fire hoses, dogs, and police batons in order to receive what my generation now takes for granted, the right to vote.

Yesterday, nearly 50 years after Bloody Sunday and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, I stood outside the Supreme Court with many others who chanted, sang and rallied to protect the VRA’s Section 5. Yes, the dogs and the cattle prods are gone, but the spirit to oppress some of America’s citizens remains.

It saddens me that we still have to fight for our right to vote, and that there are those who are still trying to deny others their rights at the ballot box. But I was encouraged by the number of people who were outside the Supreme Court yesterday,  people of all races and creeds and ages who are dedicated to and invested in protecting the right to vote! Together we sent a message to the Justices and to the nation that Section 5 is still needed, because while our country has come a long way from that grainy black and white footage of people getting beaten while fighting for their rights, discrimination and attempts to disenfranchise still exist, especially in the states covered by Section 5.

It’s often said that we are standing on the shoulders of giants, but in my case, I am truly a descendant of Civil Rights heroes whose names will never be in the history books. They took a risk, put their lives on the line, not just for themselves but for me, someone who would not be born for another 15 years. When I hear my grandmother at 86 years old say that she will put on her marching shoes if she has to, then I know that I have no choice but to put on mine. I was proud to be at the rally to protect Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act yesterday. I was proud to honor the legacy of my family and anyone else who participated in the Movement. I was proud to continue the fight to ensure that no one is denied the right to vote.

PFAW Foundation

Scalia Completely Rewrites ... Everything

Scalia ignores constitutional text, says Congress didn't really mean to pass the Voting Rights Act, and calls the VRA a "racial entitlement."
PFAW Foundation

We Can’t Afford to Lose the Voting Rights Act

Tomorrow morning, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a challenge to a pivotal section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The part of the VRA that’s under attack is Section 5, which requires the Justice Department or a federal court to approve changes to voting laws in states and counties that have a history of racially discriminatory voting practices before those laws can go into effect. The lead-up to last year’s elections, in which state legislatures passed a slew of discriminatory voter suppression measures, showed just how much Section 5 is still needed.

Today, People For the American Way Foundation released a new report from Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin detailing the history and continued need for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and what progressives can do to ensure equal voting rights in the years to come. Raskin writes:

A decision against Section 5 preclearance or the Section 4(b) coverage formula would likely spell the political demise of the Voting Rights Act, even if it is theoretically salvageable by an updated coverage formula or an even more relaxed preclearance procedure.  Our paralyzed, deadlocked Congress will never come to terms on how to revive and renovate it if the Court knocks it down or puts it into a tiny little straitjacket.

Win, lose, or draw, progressives should reckon with the prospect that the days of this landmark statute might be numbered.  This means that we need to take up an ambitious democracy and voting rights agenda of our own for the new century, this time with explicitly universalist aims and general terms that deal with the complex suppression of democracy today.  The voting rights struggles of the new century relate not just to old-fashioned racial trickery in Alabama and Texas but new-age vote suppression in Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio; they involve not just traditional vote dilution in the South but the increasingly untenable disenfranchisement of 600,000 Americans in Washington, D.C and 3.6 million Americans in Puerto Rico.

Also today, PFAW Foundation’s Director of African American Religious Affairs, Minister Leslie Watson Malachi, wrote in the Huffington Post about the challenges that people of color still face at the ballot box, nearly half a century after the passage of the Voting Rights Act:

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. 

PFAW Foundation

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

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