The voting rights struggle led by Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, marked the beginning of a steady march of progress toward true electoral democracy. Yet 50 years later, we see that progress reversing dramatically since the Shelby v. Holder decision of June 25, 2013. In that decision, the Supreme Court gutted the “pre-clearance” provisions of the Voting Rights Act and legitimized discriminatory and anti-democratic policy changes in 33 states.
The Shelby decision strengthened and codified a multi-pronged assault on voting rights already underwayby legislatures since 2010 — not just in the South but also in red states in every other region of the country. These attacks, a coordinated political coup led by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Tea Party, are a thinly veiled conspiracy to suppress progressive and liberal voters, especially voters of color. In the 2016 primaries we began to see the results as discriminatory voter roll purges and ID laws suppressed voting in Florida, North Carolina, Alabama, Wisconsin, Arizona and many other states, portending a highly manipulated result in the November elections.
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In May, a group of Congress members organized to fight back, launching a new Voting Rights Caucus, the first official congressional organization devoted to the cause of defending electoral democracy. Now 71 Representatives strong, the caucus is made up predominately of members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
A main objective of the new caucus is to force Congress to take up the Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 2867). Introduced in 2015 by Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Alabama), the bill seeks to restore pre-clearance Section 5 provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Regions with ugly histories of racial discrimination — nine states and more than 60 counties –– previously had to seek preclearance from the Department of Justice for any changes to their voting laws. The conservative Supreme Court majority struck down pre-clearance on the bizarre proposition that it was no longer needed because the Voting Rights Act had been “working well.”
In her sharp dissent of Shelby, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that destroying preclearance is like “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
The Voting Rights Act had been renewed under the Reagan administration and both Bush administrations with overwhelming bipartisan support. Yet it has become clear that the new GOP majority in Congress has no intention of continuing to uphold this essential defense against discrimination: GOP leaders have refused to hold one congressional hearing on voting rights in the three years since Shelby. Representative Terri Sewell, who was born in Selma, spoke passionately at the press conference explaining that in the Shelby decision the Supreme Court had challenged Congress to modernize the Voting Rights Act, but all efforts to do so were obstructed by the GOP. It’s now clear that any movement for voter protection will require both a serious, broad-based, people-powered protest movement for democracy, and also a change in the leadership of the Congress.
At the grassroots level, citizens are also organizing in profound ways to educate the population and inspire action. The new Voting Rights Alliance was formed in June to support the Voting Rights Caucus. On June 23, Alliance members from across the country came to DC for a rally and press conference. Speakers included Representatives Sewell and Veasey, Jesse Jackson of the Rainbow-PUSH Coalition, Terry O’Neill of the National Organization For Women, Rev. Lennoxx Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, and Barbara Arnwine, Chair of the Voting Rights Alliance.
At the same time thousands of callers flooded the Congressional Switchboard, demanding the House Speaker and Judiciary Committee Chairs hold hearings on the Voting Rights Act.
That day, the Alliance also held a Twitter town hall and a Twitter storm using the hashtag #ProtestShelby2016. The social media conversation included thousands of participants helping to launch a national campaign to push for the Voting Rights Advancement Act’s remedial legislation needed to restore voting rights, and to build a resistance movement to voter suppression.
Further efforts to fight the racist attack on voting rights include a new bill (H.R. 5557) called the Poll Tax Prohibition Act. Introduced by Representative Veasey, co-chair of the Voting Rights Caucus and nineteen co-sponsors, it pushes back against the slew of new voter ID laws byprohibiting the requirement that an individual present a piece of identification that has an associated cost. Currently, millions of voters in dozens of states face costly new identification demands that force them to chase documents in order to vote, even if they have already been voting for 50 years.
Women are most affected, especially elderly women of color, since many now have the onerous task of proving why the maiden names on their birth certificates do not match their married names. They are also less likely to be able to drive themselves on the chase for newly required documentation, as are would-be voters with disabilities.
Another piece of legislation promoted by the Voting Rights Caucus is the VOTE Act (H.R. 5131), which focuses on the security of future elections, calling for transparency of election tabulation and for addressing the reliability of aging voting machines, which often wind up in minority districts, breaking down and causing long lines at the polls. The VOTE Act was introduced by Hank Johnson (D-Georgia), who believes that “non-proprietary, open source software is imperative for next generation voting.”
Currently, the majority of the United States’ voting technology is owned and programmed by private companies. Their expensive voting machines, particularly the Touch Screen Direct Recording Electronic (DRE), are prone to breakdowns, and their vulnerabilities to fraud and hacking are also well documented in studies by John Hopkins, Princeton, Rice and Stanford Universities, as well as by the Brennan Center for Justice, the Government Accountability Office and Argonne National Laboratory.
Last year, Virginia decertified 3,000 voting machines used in about 30 counties after determining that there were severe security problems with the systems, including a poorly secured Wi-Fi feature for tallying votes that would have allowed someone to alter election results without leaving a trace.
These machines had been used in hundreds of elections since 2003. Similarly insecure voting systems are in use throughout the country.
Through the VOTE Act, states will be able to apply for federal funds to develop new, more transparent “open-source” technology for vote tabulation that can be publicly owned.
The VOTE Act also aims at making ballot recounts and audits more transparent. It states that, “upon passage of the VOTE Act, jurisdictions and parties to a recount, or election contest proceeding, would have access to the voting system software used in the election being contested.”
As the Voting Rights Caucus and the Voting Rights Alliance gear up to fight voter suppression and manipulation of elections, organizers are seeking to build broad-based participation in the actions and educational campaigns being planned for August 10, the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, and in the weeks leading up to the elections in November.