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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Fearless is the word that comes to mind after a recent visit to Selma with 60 members of the African American Ministers Leadership Council (AAMLC) and African American Ministers In Action (AAMIA). Fearless were those who sat in, marched in, taught, prayed, would not be denied 50 years ago. They established the paradigm for what those of us today, who sadly are still in battles for many rights, but more specifically voting rights, must do.
Republican politicians who claim there is no need to restore the protections we lost two years ago when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act (VRA) need not look any further than Alabama today to see why they are very wrong.
Alabama has a voter ID law requiring people to show government-issued identification in order to vote. But last week the state announced it was closing 31 driver’s license offices, including offices in all counties where Black residents comprise over three quarters of registered voters. In other words, the state is requiring that voters have ID to cast a ballot, and then taking away the places to get that ID - for Black communities in particular. If that doesn’t show that voting protections are still needed, I don’t know what does.
Despite this appalling development, Jeb Bush said yesterday that he doesn’t support reauthorizing the VRA, suggesting that there’s no longer a need for it.
No longer a need for it? The destructive changes in Alabama are exactly the kind of measures that the VRA was designed to protect against. For years, Alabama was one of the states covered by Section 5 of the Act, which required certain places with a history of voting discrimination to get all changes in voting procedures cleared by the federal government before they could take effect. That law stopped scores of voting changes from being implemented in Alabama before they could do any harm. But thanks to the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, that safeguard is gone. On the very same day the Shelby County Supreme Court ruling eviscerated the VRA, Alabama said it would start enforcing its voter ID law.
The fearless women and men in the same state that serves as a symbol of the advancement of voting rights, those Baby Boomers, must still fight with the Millennials to protect them. Like our tour guide last month, Joanne Bland, who in 1965 was an 11 year old member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, activists’ refusal to be discouraged from praying and marching in 1965 is still encouraging in 2015. She and others were honored by thousands who marched and prayed this year on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, including President Obama, Congressman John Lewis, and countless faith and community leaders and activists. They remain the symbol of intergenerational strategic and sacrificial actions that must be taken still today to address and end ongoing racial discrimination in voting.
But it’s not just Alabama. In Mississippi our AAMLC members are seeing precincts closing in or near African American churches, forcing Black residents to travel to white communities to vote. In Florida, a state representative is talking about Republicans winning elections by maximizing the number of incarcerated African Americans in a district, framing the disenfranchisement of Black Americans as an opportunity for political gain. Since the 2010 elections, a whopping 21 states have put new laws in place that make it harder to vote.
Like those who were fearless in the past, we must be fearless today and make sure that all know the fundamental, inalienable right to cast a ballot is in danger still, especially for people of color. Our political system is built on the promise of democracy for all, not democracy for those who can afford to drive cross-state on a weekday to get an ID. How can GOP leaders and presidential candidates continue to insist with a straight face that there’s no need to restore protections for voters? I wish they could one day walk, march in our shoes, to feel the pain of a promise with unnecessary barriers, to try to register and vote. In the meantime let’s be fearless!
“Forward together, not one step back” were the chants heard in every space we entered while we marched for voters’ rights in Winston-Salem, North Carolina last month. On July 13, Young People For (YP4) community college consultant Lela Ali, African American Ministers Leadership Council (AAMLC) administrative assistant Jasmine Bowden, and I participated in the Mass Moral Monday march and rally hosted by the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP to share our voices and energy in the fight against the 2013 North Carolina law (H.B. 589) that advocates have called “the worst voter suppression law in the country.”
Community and religious leaders performed sit-ins three years ago in the North Carolina State Senate resulting in arrests opposing the voter suppression law. One month later, the North Carolina NAACP and Rosanell Eaton filed a complaint in federal district court due to the bill’s violations under the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. This history was uplifted by North Carolina NAACP State President Reverend William Barber, II – who is also an AAMLC member – at an ecumenical service at Union Baptist Church Sunday evening. He gave a great sermon titled “Necessary Interruption,” saying that allies and activists are being called to disrupt our nation in order to dismantle the systems of oppression that plague our country and leave behind countless black deaths with little consequences. He spoke on the need for Medicare expansion, policy changes like gun laws and criminal justice reforms, and economic empowerment for marginalized communities. The North Carolina NAACP v. McCrory lawsuit, which challenges the provisions of embedded in H.B. 589, is one of those necessary interruptions of justice.
With a fiery ending to our first night in Winston-Salem, we were excited for the full day of teach-ins that occurred the next morning. We were hosted by Goler Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church and engaged in various topics from ‘Racial Violence & Criminal (In)Justice’ to ‘Building Coalitions to Sustain a Social Justice Movement.’ Many of our conversations were focused around allyship, direct action, and legal support to dismantle systems of inequity in local communities. We had the opportunity during our lunch break to meet with members of the Young Elected Officials (YEO) Network and ministerial leaders (AAMLC) from People For the American Way Foundation.
Later that day, we headed over to a rally and march only a few blocks away. At this time, the weather had reached its peak of 93 degrees, but this did not minimize the crowd of over 600 supporters. Music welcomed us and speakers from across the country greeted us with boisterous calls to action as they prepared us to take to the streets and rally for voters’ rights. We gathered our signs and water bottles and followed the crowd through the streets of downtown Winston-Salem as we chanted, “Forward together, not one step back!” and “What do you want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” We were escorted by local police while onlookers from the side streets clapped and cheered us on. Music continued to serenade us as young and old, black and white supporters joined hands to dance in solidarity for justice and equality around voting rights. It was a magical experience that could only be felt in that moment. We walked back to our cars after the march not concerned with the sweltering weather or the sweat staining our clothes and faces. We were excited to be a part of history and exercise our rights to march and protest.
The lawsuit appealing H.B. 589 may not be resolved right away, but activists and allies will continue to take to the internet and streets to uplift the voices of marginalized communities whose rights are violated by those who were elected to serve an array of constituents – black, brown, and white. We will continue to interrupt the notion that young people can’t participate in the electoral process. We will align ourselves with the interests of those who fight for equality and human rights. The fight for voters’ rights is a necessary interruption in the face of injustice.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 by President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The Act, which passed then and has passed since with strong bipartisan support, provided necessary protections from discriminatory voting practices by Southern states aimed at African Americans. That was yesterday. Today's VRA is barely recognizable.
Yesterday, protection was needed against poll taxes (barred in federal elections with the ratification of the 24th Amendment), literacy taxes, and things like “white primaries” in Texas. Today protection is needed against voter identification laws, purging of voting rolls, the disenfranchisement of voting rights for formerly incarcerated persons, big money in politics, and redistricting.
Yesterday, Jim Crow was to have retired in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also signed by President Johnson. Today Jim Crow is “James Crow, PhD,” – CEO of the prison industrial complex, instigator of the war on women and card carrying, dues paying member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), determined to re-define democracy in this country.
Yesterday, 50 years ago on March 7, 1965, courageous women and men were a part of a nonviolent march attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Five months later the Voting Rights Act was signed.
Today, 50 years later I stand here in Dallas with Ambassador Andrew Young, Martin Luther King, III, officers, clergy, laity, and Dr. James Perkins, President of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc. at its 54th annual conference, the convention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with great clarity and without doubt that the Voting Rights Act of yesterday is still needed in its fullness today!
Yesterday, on November 22, 1963, here in Dallas at the Dealey Plaza, John F. Kennedy was assassinated and then Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as this country’s 36th president. Blood and tears of Kennedy and the nonviolent marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge were mingled at the raising of a pen to try to finish what Kennedy started - the righting of a wrong. Today, blood and tears of the Emmanuel Nine were mingled in the lowering of the confederate flag on the grounds of the South Carolina state capital.
Yesterday, under the Johnson administration, his “Great Society” vision for America, we got Medicare and Medicaid (also 50 this month), a ban on race discrimination in public facilities, the War on Poverty, and the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act. Today, we still must march for Medicaid expansion, an end to racial profiling and gender and sexual identity discrimination, for comprehensive immigration reform. And 50 years later we still must fight for the protection of our right to vote.
We are here in Texas on this historic day, the same state that immediately following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder on August 22, 2013, passed one of the country’s most oppressive, restrictive voter identification laws (SB14) at the time and was charged with violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
We are here knowing from the yesterdays it is not a matter of “if” someone will test the voting laws of the land. Today it’s just a matter of “when.” Until we get to that place of protection, of security where rights will not, can no longer be denied, “let us march on,” educate, motivate, advocate, register and yes vote “till victory is won.”