First African-American voters after the 15th amendment was passed. (Depiction by Albert Waud)
Thousands of people, including President Obama and politicians from both sides of the aisle, gathered on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to memorialize the 50-year anniversary of the seminal march that compelled passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In many ways, Selma’s Bloody Sunday – when non-violent protestors marching to secure the voting rights of African Americans were bludgeoned and bloodied by state troopers and White posse members – epitomized the battle for voting rights during the Civil Rights Movement.
“I thank God the violence is not as bad as it was ,” said senior attorney and Director of Voter Protection Katherine Culliton-Gonzalez, of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization.
Still, while the battle for voting rights against a brutish Jim Crow may be over, the fight against a more polished Jim Crow Esq., continues, activists say.
“Certainly things are not as bad as it was 50 years ago, but there are a lot of similarities,” said Sean Young, an attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.
“It seems that whenever we take two steps forward, we take one step back and in that sense it feels like 50 years ago,” he added. “The The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the crown jewel of the Civil Rights Movement, but it didn’t end everything. People still had to fight.”
And that’s because like half-a-century ago, the impetus behind voter suppression remains the same.
“What we’re seeing today is a wave of voter suppression bills that surged after African-American turnout surged in 2008. That response to the exercise of African-American voting power is a repeat of history,” Young said.
On Feb. 3, 1870, Congress ratified the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, granting African-American men the right to vote. The law and other political gains made by African Americans during the Reconstruction, however, spurred a backlash – poll taxes, literacy tests, gerrymandering, etc. – that blocked Black enfranchisement from being fully realized for almost a century.
“Those were surgically precise in diminishing the voting power of African Americans,” Culliton-Gonzalez said.
Now, she added, demographic trends predicting that Latinos and other minorities will soon gain the majority – and the resulting political power – have prompted voter suppression redux.
“Every time a voting restriction is struck down by the courts, state legislatures turn around and find new ways to attackvoting rights. It’s almost like playing a game of whack-a-mole,” said Young.
Voting rights advocates suffered a stunning loss in that game when the Supreme Court, in the June 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, essentially gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required states with a history of voter discrimination to seek federal preclearance for any change to their election law.
The crack in that legal floodgate has since unleashed a torrent of previously stymied anti-voting rights efforts.
“In the Shelby decision, the Supreme Court took the life out of the Voting Rights Act, which was supposed to be an umbrella of protection for voters,” Culliton-Gonzalez said. “And in the two years since that decision, we’ve experienced a true deluge and thunderstorm of restrictive and suppressive voter laws.”
Many of these new restrictions were introduced in states across the country, but the majority were in the South in jurisdictions previously covered by Section 5. In North Carolina, for instance, the state legislature has passed 40 voting changes since Shelby, in what Culliton-Gonzalez called a “monster voter suppression law.”
The 56-page Voter Information Verification Act, includes a restrictive photo ID law; cuts early voting period to 10 days; eliminates Sunday voting; eliminates same-day registration; jettisons provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct; abolishes straight-ticket voting; prohibits counties from extending voting hours on Election Day; allows more people, including partisan poll observers, to challenge a voter’s right to vote; and many more.
“We think we have very strong evidence of discrimination in this law,” Culliton-Gonzalez. “They want to take away the things that help voters of color.”
Of course, proponents of these laws cite motivations such as ending voter fraud – an almost non-existent problem – cutting costs, etc. That too is reminiscent of the battles of the past. “What the states are doing, to the casual observer, may not seem as egregious, but they are getting better and better at disguising what they are trying to do,” Young said. “All of these measures are, on their face, racially neutral, but they all have a disproportionate impact on African Americans .”
Activists have been using Section 2 of the VRA and other legal bases to challenge these laws, netting wins in states such as Texas, Pennsylvania, and Arkansas, where restrictive voter ID laws were struck down; and in Ohio and Florida, where voter roll purges were successfully challenged. But there are continuing obstacles in jurisdictions like Wisconsin, Ohio, and North Carolina; for example, Advancement Project is currently speaking to the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its arguments on the believed unconstitutionality of Wisconsin’s voter ID law.
Young said, unlike yesteryear, there is also a challenge of activating people to agitate on behalf of their voting rights – since many seem to believe that racism is over. Culliton-Gonzalez, however, said she has seen a promising level of activism.
“People’s response to the assault on voting rights has been to fight back,” she said, citing considerable turnout among Black voters in 2012 despite new restrictive laws and also the ongoing Moral Monday protest movement initiated by the NAACP’s Rev. William Barber in North Carolina and replicated in other states.
Both activist-lawyers said they hope to see similar momentum in Congress, where bills to renew the VRA’s Section 4 – as required by Shelby – have languished.
“What better way to honor the memory and sacrifice of the Selma marchers than to consider and debate at least one of these bills,” Young said.
Pushing Congress to act, marshalling community outrage and challenging disenfranchising laws in court will be part of the modern-day fight for voting rights, a fight that will likely be ongoing, Young said.
“Racial discrimination is a stubborn beast and I don’t know that there is a magic bullet to destroy it,” he said. “ we may not win every battle, we’re hopeful we’ll win the war.”