The following is a guest blog from Reverend Michael Couch, a member of People For the American Way’s African American Ministers In Action.
On Tuesday, while speaking at the Georgetown University Law Center, Attorney General Eric Holder called for a repeal of state voting laws that disenfranchise formerly incarcerated people. In a country where nearly six million citizens are unable to vote because of felony convictions, these changes could not come quickly enough.
State laws dictating voting rights for those who have served time in prison vary, from an automatic restoration of rights after sentence completion in some states to outright bans in others. Restrictions on this civil right in states like Kentucky, Florida, Iowa, and Virginia should no longer be subject to criteria such as the type of convictions, arbitrary time frames, petitions to clemency boards and/or the state governor.
I work daily with others around the country to make sure nonpartisan voting education and voter registration of women and men who have completed their sentences takes place. Laws that disenfranchise formerly incarcerated people take away the single most fundamental American right, and they do so disproportionately to people of color. As Attorney General Holder pointed out in his speech, restrictive laws prohibit a shocking one in thirteen African Americans adults from voting.
As an African American faith leader, I find this to be both morally unacceptable and counterproductive to the goal of fostering supportive, engaged communities. I know from experience if someone has committed a crime, served their time in prison, and is released, no good could come of permanently stripping them of their most basic right and responsibility. Moreover, what isn’t often addressed is how restrictive laws keep families of those adults from helping them transition back to being a responsible, contributing citizen of their community. It’s time to change the message sent to the nearly six million Americans who have lost their voice and civic responsibility in our democracy.
Attorney General Holder is right: These laws are “unwise…unjust, and… not in keeping with our democratic values.” It’s time for states to get rid of laws that suppress those who have served their time and prevent them from fully participating in our democratic system.
Ohio Republican legislators are up to their voter suppression tricks again, trying to limit absentee ballot registrations and restricting voting hours ahead of the November 2014 elections. The Columbus Dispatch reported Friday that GOP Rep. Mike Dovilla, Chairman of the Ohio House Policy and Legislative Oversight Committee, said the committee will vote on Senate Bill 205 and Senate Bill 238 as early as Tuesday. If passed out of Dovilla’s committee, it could be off to the full House for a floor debate on Wednesday.
• SB 205 would ban county clerks from mass mailing absentee ballot applications to all voters, holding that duty only for OH Secretary of State Jon Husted, who has proven in the past that he will restrict voting access almost every chance he gets.
• SB 238 would achieve one of Husted’s anti-voter policy agenda items by limiting early voting days, effectively eliminating Ohioans’ ability to register and vote on the same day anywhere in the state.
These legislative moves come just days after the news broke that Hamilton County officials might relocate Cincinnati’s largest early voting location to a new, much less accessible location. That decision met with considerable push-back from voting rights activists and the media, resulting in a deadlock vote from the Board of Elections. The final decision now also goes to Secretary Husted to decide, effectively putting the power to restrict access to early voting in Cincinnati’s largest city in his hands.
If you are from Ohio, call your Representative now and tell them to protect your early voting rights by voting ‘NO’ on SB 205 and SB 238. You can find your Representative’s contact information here: http://www.ohiohouse.gov/members/member-directory. Once you have talked to your Representative, drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know what they said. We’ll keep tabs on the situation and update you on voter suppression efforts in Ohio – and across the country – on the PFAW blog.
In 2012, over the protests of thousands of Pennsylvanians, forty five organizations, and every Democrat in the state legislature, Governor Tom Corbett signed into law one of the strictest voter ID requirements in the country. The Speaker of the Pennsylvania House acknowledged that he pushed the law to help Mitt Romney win the state.
This morning the two-year-old law was ruled unconstitutional. Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley wrote that law was a “substantial threat” and that it would hinder the ability of many to vote freely.
In the ruling, Judge McGinley stated:
“Voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election; the Voter ID Law does not further this goal.”
People For the American Way Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council said of the law last year:
“The purpose of this law has been clear from the beginning. It was meant to keep African Americans, students, and other traditionally suppressed communities from exercising our hard-won right to vote. Even the law’s supporters have admitted that there is absolutely no evidence of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania. Instead, this law is a purely political attempt to disenfranchise citizens who have every right to vote. I am dismayed at today’s decision and hope that as this case moves through the courts, our judges recognize the ugly intent and real consequences of voter ID.”
In June, the Supreme Court struck down the key enforcement mechanism of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which mandated Justice Department review of election law changes in states and counties with a history of voting discrimination.
The state of Texas responded almost immediately by going ahead with an arduous photo ID requirement that had until the Supreme Court’s decision been blocked by federal courts.
As the Justice Department and voting rights advocates feared, Texas’ law, which went into effect on Monday, is already keeping qualified people from registering to vote. So far, only 41 of the 1.4 million people who lack an eligible voter ID have obtained a substitute “election identification certificate.” But the new requirement isn’t just preventing people who don’t have certain forms of ID from registering to vote – it’s also threatening to disenfranchise women who changed their names when they married.
Policy Mic notes that the Texas law “requires all voters to provide a photo ID that reflects their current name. If they cannot, voters must provide any of a series of other acceptable forms of identification all of which must match exactly and match the name on their birth certificate." This presents a problem for the 34 percent of women who lack an ID that shows their current name, including those who changed their names when they married:
In fact, only 66% of women have an ID that reflects their current name. If any voter is using name different than what appears on their birth certificate, the voter is required to show proof of name change by providing an original or certified copy of their marriage license, divorce decree, or court ordered name change. Photocopies aren’t accepted.
Now ask a woman who’s been married for years where her original marriage certificate is. Ask a woman who’s been divorced — maybe more than once — where all the divorce decrees are. Ask elderly women where their original birth certificate is.
Today, Think Progress reports on one Texas woman caught in this trap: a state district court judge who has been voting for nearly 50 years but whose registration was almost blocked because her drivers’ license lists her maiden name as her middle name, while her voter registration form did not:
As she told local channel Kiii News, 117th District Court Judge Sandra Watts was flagged for possible voter fraud because her driver’s license lists her maiden name as her middle name, while her voter registration form has her real middle name. This was the first time she has ever had a problem voting in 49 years. “What I have used for voter registration and for identification for the last 52 years was not sufficient yesterday when I went to vote,” she said.
Watts worried that women who use maiden names or hyphenated names may be surprised at the polls. “I don’t think most women know that this is going to create a problem,” the judge said. “That their maiden name is on their driver’s license, which was mandated in 1964 when I got married, and this. And so why would I want to use a provisional ballot when I’ve been voting regular ballot for the last 49 years?"
The Justice Department is currently suing Texas over the law and asking a federal court to require preclearance in the future, under a section of the Voting Rights Act not affected by its recent ruling.
The Associated Press is reporting that Virginia election officials have gone ahead with a planned “purge” of the state’s voter rolls, removing nearly 40,000 names from voter registration lists.
The state’s gubernatorial election is in less than three weeks.
There are signs that some eligible voters may have had their vaild voter registrations revoked in the purge. One local registrar refused to participate, the AP reports, because one in ten names that state elections officers sent him to be removed from the rolls were in fact eligible voters:
One local registrar, Lawrence Haake in Chesterfield County, has defied the state elections board and refused to purge any voters. In an affidavit, Haake says that he conducted a preliminary review that found nearly 10 percent of the names given to him by the state for potential purging were, in fact, eligible voters. He concluded that the risk of purging legitimate voters was too great.
“The list sent to us from the SBE is clearly inaccurate and unreliable,” Haake said in the affidavit.
In our report “The Right to Vote Under Attack,” we documented how flawed voter purges keep eligible citizens from voting.
It’s all been quiet on the election-rigging front for a while—so quiet that you might have thought the Republicans’ plan to rig the electoral college had been quietly dropped. Sadly, that’s not the case.
Florida state Rep. Ray Pilon introduced a bill last week to change how the state apportions its electoral college votes. Under his plan, the state would award its electoral college votes by congressional district. If this plan had been in place in 2012, Florida would have awarded an extra 15 electoral college votes Mitt Romney. Indeed, as Think Progress points out, if every state used this plan, Romney would have won the election.
That massive hypothetical shift is partly due to another plank of the Republicans’ plan to rig elections in their favor: gerrymandering congressional districts. If states like Florida award their votes by congressional district, then the Republican party in those states can create a huge advantage for themselves by gerrymandering their congressional district maps. This part of the plan is already complete in many states, where we won’t have an opportunity to try and reverse some of this gerrymandering for nearly 10 years (and two presidential elections). Florida’s GOP would certainly benefit from such a plan, where the last round of redistricting created a map that will, in the words of the Washington Post, help “cement their overwhelming majority in the state’s delegation for a decade to come.”
Just look at the red the congressional district maps in Pennsylvania, where Obama won the popular vote by more than five percent but would have lost the majority of electoral college votes under a plan like Pilon’s. Indeed, congressional district maps throughout the country are so gerrymandered that while Democrats won the 2012 popular vote for House seats, we ended up with the second biggest GOP majority in 60 years.
It’s clear that this bill is another sad attempt to rig the game in the Republicans’ favor. It has nothing to do with fairness and democracy, and everything to do with partisan games. But just being sick of losing doesn’t give you the right to change the rules. Most people learned that as children on the playground, but it seems like the Republican party never got that lesson. The only way they’ll ever get these bills passed is if we let them get away with it, so it’s up to us to let them know that we’re paying attention. That’s how we’ve kept these bills from being passed in every other state that they’ve been proposed in over the past year, and that’s what we’ll do with this bill.
How’s all that new outreach going, GOP? Not that well, it seems.
This week, Nevada Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey gave meaning to that old political saying, “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth.” Speaking on a conservative talk radio show about the Republican Party’s chances in 2014, Hickey said:
"Probably where we had a million voters turn out in 2012; we'll have like 700,000 [in 2014]. A lot of minorities, a lot of younger people will not turn out in a non-presidential year. It's a great year for Republicans!"
It’s a great year for Republicans-- when people don’t vote! Particularly those young people and minorities, so never mind them! Really, just a great job rebranding there, GOP, I think you’ve nailed it.
Of course, it’s amusing when a politician accidentally reveals the truth like this, but it points to a serious problem in our democracy. The Republican assault on the right to vote in this country is moving full steam ahead, with bills introduced in 31 states just this year. It’s clear at this point that no amount of accidental truth-telling is going to embarrass them into stopping this attack: they’ve had slip-ups like this in the past, but they still keep pushing to make it harder for people to vote. We can’t wait for them to start feeling ashamed of their position, because that’s clearly never going to happen. It’s up to us to actively defend the right to vote, wherever it is under attack.
We’re already well aware that the voter ID laws that have been passed in many states are designed not to prevent fraud but to deter certain groups of people from voting, as several Republicans have admitted in the past. But even without those accidental moments of honesty, it would be clear that something other than an epidemic of voter fraud was motivating the passage of these laws, because there is nothing close to an epidemic of voter fraud.
Today, we have some new evidence of that. Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News reviewed the 66 voter fraud cases prosecuted by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott since 2004 and found that just four cases would have been prevented by the state’s voter ID law. The law was passed in 2011 and blocked by a unanimous three-judge panel of federal judges until this spring, when the Supreme Court gutted the key enforcement provision of the Voting Rights Act. Just two hours after the Supreme Court handed down its decision, Abbott declared the voter ID law to be once again…which in turn led to another Justice Department lawsuit.
The numbers that are supposedly driving Texas’ voter ID push are so ridiculous that they’re actually quite difficult to illustrate. Consider this: Texas had 13,594,264 registered voters in 2012. Four cases of fraud out of 13,594,264 voters works out to… actually, it’s a percentage so small my calculator won’t even display it. Of course, voter fraud is a serious felony that Texas is right to prosecute on the rare occasions that it happens. But Greg Abbott considers the crime widespread enough to pass a law that will disenfranchise thousands of voters who can’t access the ID they need, or will be confused or otherwise deterred by the restrictions and won’t go to the polls.
Perhaps the most telling part of Slater’s piece is this:
“Abbott acknowledged that voter ID wouldn’t have made a difference in most of the cases he has prosecuted.”
Instead, Abbott’s response to Slater’s data on the ineffectiveness of voter ID was as logical as can be expected: Obamacare!
So Abbott’s solution to prevent potential voter fraud is one that he admits won’t address most of the (very few) actual instances of fraud, yet he’s pushing ahead with instituting a law that will disenfranchise thousands? To me, it looks like he doesn’t even believe his own spin anymore. The only “problem” this law addresses is that some people want to vote for Democrats—and Greg Abbott knows it.
Between the Supreme Court’s decision to neuter Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and the passage of one of the nation’s most restrictive voter ID bills in North Carolina, with many other states also passing bills to restrict voting and registration, it’s been a tough year for the right to vote in America. And it just got worse in Virginia, where elections are just around the corner.
According to a report by Think Progress, around “57,000 Virginians have been flagged as being registered in another state, and counties are removing some from the voter rolls without any notice or opportunity to rebut the claim.” This is a crucial point in this case: it’s one thing to make thousands of registered voters jump through hoops to prove they’re eligible to vote in the state, but it’s quite another to remove those voters without any notice, less than two months before an election and less than six weeks before the registration deadline. If the voter was removed in error, the burden is on that voter to fix the state’s mistake in time to vote this November. As Think Progress points out, 57,000 voters is around 3% of the number of voters in 2009—more than enough to make the difference in a close election.
This is disturbing news, particularly following reports that Florida may be looking to take another shot at purging their voter rolls, which they failed to do in time for the 2012 election. Oh, and Iowa, too. Any other swing states feel like joining in?
For more information on voter purges, take a look at the Brennan Center’s report, as well as our report on voter fraud, The Right To Vote Under Attack: The Campaign to Keep Millions of Americans from the Ballot Box.
At the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this Wednesday, Reverend Al Sharpton made the case that people of color are facing a new generation of Jim Crow-type laws. “Jim Crow had a son,” Sharpton said, a son who writes voter suppression, Stand Your Ground, and stop-and-frisk laws. His name? “James Crow, Jr., Esquire.”
At Rosa Park’s funeral in 2005, Sharpton made similar comments:
The one we’ve got to battle is James Crow, Jr., Esquire. He’s a little more educated. He’s a little slicker. He’s a little more polished. But the results are the same. He doesn’t put you in the back of the bus. He just puts referendums on the ballot to end affirmative action where you can’t go to school. He doesn’t call you a racial name, he just marginalizes your existence.
A case in point of the slicker, more polished push for policy that disproportionately harms people of color is the assault on voting rights in North Carolina. The Institute for Southern Studies released the results of an investigation yesterday finding that mega-donor Art Pope has played an important, if largely hidden, role in making restrictive voting laws in the state a reality. Whether through funding conservative think tanks disseminating lies about voter fraud or by financially backing Republican elected officials involved in pushing the sweeping anti-voter law, Pope’s influence in bringing about what The Nation described as “the country’s worst voter suppression law” is clear.
At PFAW, we often write about the danger of individual Americans’ voices being drowned out by the roar of moneyed interests in our democracy. Through organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council, corporate lobbyists can quietly help get Stand Your Ground and voter ID laws on the books. Art Pope’s support of North Carolina’s draconian voting law shows one more example of why the struggle to protect individual voices and votes in a democracy being flooded by the money of wealthy special interests is an uphill battle – but a battle unquestionably worth fighting.
Events commemorating the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom are already under way in Washington, D.C. If you live in the capital area or nearby, you may want to attend events at the Lincoln Memorial this Saturday, August 24th or next Wednesday, August 28th , or one of dozens of other events. The A. Philip Randolph Institute, for example is holding its 44th annual education conference and youth conference in honor of Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the organizers of the March who appeared on the cover of Life Magazine’s September 6, 1963 issue. You can find information about events here and here.
Whether or not you can get to Washington, you can catch major events on television. And you might want to get started tonight – Friday, August 23 – with the PBS re-broadcast of an award-winning documentary about author and advocate James Baldwin. James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket will be shown on PBS stations as part of the American Masters program. Broadcast times vary so check your local station’s listings. PBS will also host on interactive online screening at 5:00 pm eastern on August 28th.
For a reminder of why it’s important to know our history, and prevent it from being co-opted, see People For the American Way President Michael Keegan’s new Huffington Post op-ed, Don’t Let the Right Wing Co-opt King.
It's been a week of mixed emotions for those of us who care about civil rights. There was the elation today when the Supreme Court overturned the so-called Defense of Marriage Act -- the discriminatory law that has hurt so many Americans in its nearly 17 years of existence -- and let marriage equality return to California. There was the anger when the Court twisted the law to make it harder for workers and consumers to take on big corporations. And there was the disbelief and outrage when the Court declared that a key part of the Voting Rights Act that was so important and had worked so well was now somehow no longer constitutional.
But throughout the week, I have been reminded of one thing: how grateful I am that Mitt Romney will not be picking the next Supreme Court justice.
It remains true that this Supreme Court is one of the most right-leaning in American history. The majority's head-in-the-sand decision on the Voting Rights Act -- declaring that the VRA isn't needed anymore because it's working so well -- was a stark reminder of why we need to elect presidents who will nominate Supreme Court justices who understand both the text and history of the Constitution and the way it affects real people's lives.
We were reminded of this again today when all the conservative justices except for Anthony Kennedy stood behind the clearly unconstitutional DOMA. Justice Antonin Scalia -- no stranger to anti-gay rhetoric -- wrote an apoplectic rant of a dissent denying the Court's clear role in preserving equal protection. If there had been one more far-right justice on the court, Scalia's dissent could have been the majority opinion.
Just think of how different this week would have been if Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan were not on the court and if John McCain had picked two justices instead. We almost certainly wouldn't have a strong affirmation of LGBT equality. Efforts to strip people of color of their voting rights would likely have stood with fewer justices in dissent. And the rights of workers and consumers could be in even greater peril.
As the Republican party moves further and further to the right, it is trying to take the courts with it. This week, we saw what that means in practice. As we move forward to urge Congress to fix the Voting Rights Act and reinforce protections for workers and consumers, and work to make sure that marriage equality is recognized in all states, we must always remember the courts. Elections have real consequences. These Supreme Court decisions had less to do with evolving legal theory than with who appointed the justices. Whether historically good or disastrous, all these decisions were decided by just one vote. In 2016, let's not forget what happened this week.