The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) convened in Raleigh, North Carolina on Feb. 2 to hear testimony on access to voting from legal experts in the field and every day citizens.

“N.C. is viewed by many to be the epi-center of many voting rights issues. I’m just happy that the Commission has made the decision to come here and highlight not only what is going on in NC but also throughout the nation,” said Patricia Simmons-Goodson, vice chair of the USCCR.

Bishop William Barber, president of Repairers of the Breech and past state president of the NC- NAACP, testified about voting rights in North Carolina. (Courtesy photo)

“The Commission is 60 years old and one of the reasons we were founded was to deal with Voting Rights issues taking place in this country when we were founded and voting issues now,” Simons-Goodson said.

Legal experts and activists across the nation descended on Raleigh, North Carolina to meet with the Commission. For the most part, their testimony amplified the level of protection is still critically needed 50-plus years after the passage of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, and especially in the light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s highly contested 5-4 decision in 2013, (Shelby County v. Holder, 570, US. 2) overturning a critical provision of the Act.

“We had 340 years of slavery and Jim Crow and we’ve only had 52 years of the Voting Rights Act and all 52 of those years have been fights to overcome denial,” said Bishop William Barber, president of Repairers of the Breech and past state president of the NC- NAACP.

“It took 25 years after the passage of the voting rights act before NC even elected a Congresswoman of color in the U.S. Congress. It’s not as though these things happen quickly,” Barber told the Commission.

Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and past Director of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, told the Commission that when the Supreme Court struck down the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 (Section 4-B) an undue weight was placed on citizens to bring voter discrimination cases to court.

“To make those cases, the bar itself is incredibly high,” argued Gupta. “It is resource intensive to bring litigation and the harm at that point is already done,” she said.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby v. Holder, certain states and jurisdictions across the nation had to receive approval from either a U.S. Federal Court or the U.S. Department of Justice before changing laws or regulations involving voting. Under current law, the aggrieved party is responsible for proving that voting regulations are discriminatory.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told the Commission that the litany of laws and policies adopted in states throughout the nation such as limiting early voting, laws requiring voter ID, inaccessible polling stations and non-posted voting hours, represented the new face of voter suppression in America.

“If a law is created for the purpose of suppressing the vote of a particular group, that’s a problem of democratic governance. That is a problem that was meant to be dealt with by the Voting Rights Act,” Ifill said.

“It’s about the individual’s right to participate equally in the political process and about freeing our system from something that has been the scourge of this country, that is our original sin, the suppression of the participation of racial minorities,” Ifill testified.

The Commissioners ended the day-long briefing with public comment from citizens who came from around the corner and across the nation to affirm the need for enhanced federal voting rights legislation.  Kristi Talley, documented voting violations she witnessed in Raleigh while serving on the Wake County Board of Elections while John P. Comer President of Maryland Communities for Change, came from Baltimore to advocate for voting rights protection for returning citizens.

The USCCR will issue a report later this year. “Ultimately, we will be making recommendations to The President and Congress about changes that can and should be implemented to ensure that our citizens are ale to vote as our Constitution guarantees,” said Commissioner Timm