Democratic National Committee Platform Committee Briefing: “How Voter Suppression Efforts Are Threatening Our Democracy”

On Saturday, June 18, 2016 the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, pastor, architect of the Moral Monday Movement, and president of Repairers of the Breach, gave testimony at the Democratic National Committee Platform Committee Briefing entitled "How Voter Suppression Efforts are Threatening Our Democracy." Video and transcript available below.
 

Thank you for the opportunity to present on the urgency of including voting rights reform in the DNC platform. Immediately restoring and expanding Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act by passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act, along with legislation to curtail the power of Citizens United must be a part of the platform to save our democracy from a hostile corporate takeover and build a progressive moral agenda where all voices are valued. Both the gains and the regression we have seen are recent: I was born two days after the March on Washington, and the Voting Rights Act was signed into law within my lifetime.

It was the bloodshed in Selma at the Edmund Pettis Bridge that provided the ink and the pen of history that signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965; but today, because of the action of five Supreme Court justices and Republican congressional leadership that has refused to do its job, the march of history has regressed. Much of that ink has been erased and the US Attorney General has less power today to enforce voting rights and voting protection than the Attorney General had on August 7, 1965, the day after the signing of the Voting Rights Act. Are we willing to say the blood on the streets of Selma and across the South was shed in vain? Voter suppresion tactics are being passed with abandon by legislatures and governors across these fifty states – especially in the South, who no longer have to worry about the accountability structures the VRA put in place.

The Voting Rights Act should not be a partisan issue. It should be a common cause; and at its inception, it was. A Republican and a Democrat, together, introduced the bill in Congress. Voting is at the heart of our democracy. If we do not correct what the errant Shelby decision did to nullify the pre-clearance enforcement protections of Section 5, then, as Fannie Lou Hamer did before the Democratic National Convention in 1964, we all must question America and the state of our democracy.

Citizens United allowed money to continue its attempt to buy our democracy and put it in the hands of the highest bidder. The Shelby decision further undermines the power of the people and allows bought politicians to rig the system and ensure their ongoing re-election. When there are no safeguards against politicians rigging elections, they can easily scheme to suppress black, brown, and poor voters and further undermine the ability of citizens to form fusion coalitions and elect candidates of their choice.

June 25, seven days from today, will be the third anniversary of the Shelby decision. What is tragic is that since that day three years ago – that is, for 1,095 days – the leadership of the United States Congress has refused to fix Section 4 the Voting Rights Act in a way that would restore and expand Section 5 pre-clearance protection. 1,095 days. We have had, in essence, a three-year congressional filibuster. This is 1,094 days longer than Strom Thurmond filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1957. In that time, more than 24 states – especially states with growing black, Latino, and progressive white voting populations – have passed new, restrictive voter suppression laws. This has happened across the South, even as new data shows that by registering 30% of the African American vote in the South, coordinated with the votes of Latinos and progressive whites, we could, for the first time in nearly 50 years, break open the solid South.

Instead, we are now seeing attacks on voting rights comprable to those seen during the 19th century at the end of Reconstruction and during Jim Crow in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. In my state of North Carolina alone, we saw extremists, who call themselves Republicans, pass the worst redistricting plan since the 19th century in 2010, stacking and packing 51% of African American voters into 27 of 120 state house seats and 49% of black voters into 19 of 50 state senate seats, causing our US Congressional delegation to swing from 7 Democrats and 6 Republicans to 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats. Six years later, the courts are now ruling in our favor, but these unconstitutionally constituted delegations are in place and passing laws. In 2013, the same day that the Shelby decision was announced, immediately after Shelby was handed down, State Senator Tom Apodaca, Chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, explained that the Senate hadn’t wanted the “legal headaches” of the VRA’s preclearance requirements, and “[n]ow we can go ahead with the full bill.”(1) Without public hearings or any pre-clearance, our state general assembly went on to pass the most regressive voter suppression law in the country. We are headed on fast-tracked appeal to the fourth circuit federal court to argue on June 21st against this law and its modern-day voter suppression tactics. We expect this case will have national impact.

The voting rights attack we experience today in the United States is blasphemy against the imago dei in every person. Every right to vote came through the blood of the martyrs and sacrifice. The Fifteenth Amendment guarantees “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The Voting Rights Act has, since its signing on August 6, 1965, been amended five times to expand its protections. The act is designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and has been essential to securing voting rights for racial minorities throughout the country, especially in the South.  It is widely known to be the most effective piece of civil rights legislation enacted in this country’s history.

For this Congress to engage in what amounts to an immoral filibuster – ignoring the duty to restore the Voting Rights Act since June 25, 2013, the date of the Shelby decision – is a constitutional and moral travesty.

The lack of courage of this Congress affects the whole nation, but its effects are egregious in the 11 former Confederate Southern states. Those states make up 162 electoral votes, 22 Senators, 13 Governors, and 31% of U.S. House Seats.  It is still true: if you can control the South you go a long way toward controlling the nation. Today, the South again stands at the moral crossroads: what do we stand for as a country and is the promise of a full, inclusive, participatory democracy achievable in the United States of America?

Voters of color have increasing potential political power in 2016. Today, nearly 30% of America’s eligible voters are people of color.(2) In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby v Holder that gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, we are now approaching the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. There is no greater example of the impact of new voting rules on voters of color than in North Carolina, which passed the nation’s most wide-sweeping voter suppression law once the VRA’s preclearance protections were no longer in place.

In North Carolina, we have been subjected to the most extreme, cynical, and comprehensive voter suppression efforts since the Shelby decision, encompassing perhaps the worst discrimination in voting seen since the Voting Rights Act ended poll taxes, literacy tests, and the many other forms of subtle and overt discrimination in voting that persisted in this nation for a century after the Reconstruction Amendments were adopted. This can only be described as full-fledged regression.

Prior to Shelby, 40 counties in North Carolina were covered under the Voting Rights Act and subject to federal pre-clearance requirements. (3) Even with the full protections of the VRA, voting rights have been a site of struggle in North Carolina. In the 30 years prior to the Shelby ruling, the Department of Justice objected more than 60 times to more than 150 voting changes in North Carolina on grounds that they were racially biased. Without the pre-clearance protections, the many VRA violations of that era would have resulted in deeper disenfranchisement, rather than the higher levels of participation of African Americans who appreciate the sacred nature of our voting rights.

The Shelby decision was undeniably critical to this legislation. North Carolina was one of the first states to pass more restrictive voting provisions in its wake. The breadth of the decision is striking, targeting nearly every aspect of the voting process – decreasing the early voting period by a full week, eliminating same-day voter registration, eliminating out-of-precinct provisional ballots, expanding voter challenges at the polls, eliminating pre-registration for 16- and 17-year olds, eliminating straight party ticket voting, and eliminating a state mandate for voter registration in high schools, among other provisions. (4) In short, it eliminates virtually all of the measures that were responsible for expanding voter access over the last two decades. It also implements a discriminatory photo ID requirement. In our lawsuit challenging H.B. 589 (NC NAACP v. McCrory), we have presented compelling evidence that demonstrates discriminatory intent in the passage of the law.

In the nearly month-long trial in federal court last summer – a trial that included some 50 live witnesses and one million pages of evidence – we presented uncontroverted data demonstrating the law’s disparate impact on voters of color, who, for example, are statistically more likely to use early voting, to cast ballots during the eliminated first week of early voting, to use same-day registration and pre-registration, to cast out-of-precinct ballots, and who are less likely to have or be able to obtain compliant state-issued photo ID. During the 2012 presidential election, 70% of African Americans who voted did so through early voting. Latinos are registered at lower rates, but they also have disproportionately used same-day registration. Although blacks make up a little over 20% of the electorate, 41% used same day registration. These have been highly popular programs used by large sections of the electorate, yet the North Carolina legislature did not offer any credible, non-discriminatory reason for cutting them. 

 Although African Americans only comprise 22% of our state’s electorate, they comprise 31-34% of those who could not be matched with Department of Motor Vehicle records, and thus are apt to lack ID. Among registered voters, African Americans are more than twice as likely as whites to lack a state-issued photo ID. More than 218,000 voters in North Carolina lack a state-issued ID.

The state legislature knew that the measures would disparately impact voters of color and decrease our opportunity to elect candidates of our choice, and yet they passed the law anyway. Let’s be clear: the Shelby ruling opened the door to these discriminatory voting measures. No longer bound by pre-clearance requirements of Section 5, states can implement voting restrictions without a preliminary federal review. The burden now rests on voters and their advocates to identify restrictive voting practices, uncover evidence of disparate impact and discriminatory intent, and pursue challenges.

History shows us that without the pre-clearance protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which cover states with ongoing and repeated incidents of discrimination in voting, extremists in these states will continue to attempt to disenfranchise voters of color in ways that are difficult to stop. Without pre-clearance, the people have to depend on the ability to litigate to protect our rights to freedom from discrimination in voting.

Recently, Judge Thomas D. Schroeder of Federal District Court in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, upheld legislation passed in 2013 that imposed far-reaching restrictions on voting across this state, including strict voter-identification requirements. Judge Schroeder justified his decision by claiming that robust turnout in 2014 proved that the law did not suppress the black vote. But in reality, his ruling defended the worst attack on voting rights since the 19th century.

In his ruling, Judge Schroeder said that there is “little official discrimination to consider” today. His nearly 500-page ruling is in keeping with the 19th century opponents of “Negro rule” who argued that voter intimidation was not “official discrimination” because it was carried out by the Ku Klux Klan. In later years, poll taxes and literacy tests were also deemed not “official discrimination.” We appealed immediately and the Fourth Circuit fast-tracked the case and reissued an injunction against the changes being implemented until they rule.

We have now experienced multiple election cycles under unconstitutional electoral systems, including unconstitutional voting districts, influencing outcomes in local, state and federal elections.

Let me also note another disturbing factor about this political season: we have had an entire presidential primary campaign asking citizens of these United States to cast their vote, yet not one presidential debate on either side has been fully dedicated to addressing voter suppression and the call to restore and expand the VRA. Not one candidate has given a major speech dedicated solely to voter suppression. In contrast, when the Voting Rights Act was passed, Lyndon Baines Johnson remarked that it was more important than any battle fought on any battlefield.

Freedom of speech and the right to protest, equal protection under the law, the right to vote, and the establishment of justice provide the four cornerstones upon which a democratic society must rest. If any is removed, the democracy is rendered unstable.

In North Carolina, more than 1,000 citizens have been arrested while protesting voter suppression, and in 2014, more than 80,000 people showed up on one day because they understand that voter suppression is a threat and that criminal justice reform, healthcare, environmental justice and protection, and the protection of gender and sexual minorities hang in the balance because when the vote is suppressed, the possibilities for progressive politics are stunted.

Let me conclude by appealing to a history, a moral tradition upon whose firm foundation we build. This is a country made of the people, for the people, and by the people. More than century ago, our ancestors saw fit and necessary to assert in the Fifteenth Amendment that “no one shall deny or abridge the right to vote.”

But this imperfect project didn’t end there. More than fifty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood in Washington, DC, to call again for equality at the ballot box. At that time, he said, “all types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters. The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition.”(5)

Our religious traditions speak strongly about the disenfranchisement of minorities and the poor. The prophet Isaiah says, “woe unto those who legislate evil and pass laws that rob the poor of their rights.”(6)

The Qur’an, too, speaks against theft from the most vulnerable among us, saying, “O you who are faithful! Be ever steadfast in your devotion to Allah, bearing witness to the truth in all equity; and never let hatred of anyone lead you into the sin of deviating from justice.”(7)

Jesus, also, spoke harshly against hypocrisy and unjust laws, instead demanding faithfulness to the weightier matters of the law: love and justice and mercy.(8)

For these reasons, I believe any national platform that does not call for the immediate restoration and expansion of the Voting Rights Act, beginning with passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act, and any platform that does not champion legislation to undo the impact of Citizens United would be morally indefensible and constitutionally inconsistent.

1. “NC voter ID bill moving ahead with Supreme Court ruling,” WRAL, June 25, 2013, http://www.wral.com/nc-senator-voter-id-bill-moving-ahead-with-ruling/12591669/

2. Steve Phillips, Brown Is The New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority 5 (The New Press, 2016), citing U.S. Census data. (According to the latest Census data, the nation’s citizen voting age population has reached over 220 million eligible voters.  Of these, over 27 million (12.3%) are African-American, over 23.6 million (10.7%) are Latino, 8.7 million (4.0%) are Asian and Pacific Islander, and among others, 155.8 million (70.8%) are white) In 2012, people of color were 28% of all voters, and this percent is likely to be higher in 2016.

3. At one point, 41 counties were covered. One county bailed out of coverage.

4. H.B. 589 (2013), available at http://www.ncleg.net/Sessions/2013/Bills/House/PDF/H589v5.pdf.

5. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Give Us the Ballot,” Washington, DC, May 17, 1957.

6. Isaiah 10.

7. Qur’an 5:8.

8. Matthew 23.