A Roadmap to the 2019 Racial Justice and Democracy Agenda

Kristen Clarke
President & Executive Director, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

If we, the people, face a national emergency, it is widespread voter suppression and systematic disenfranchisement.

These are grave threats to democracy that cast a growing shadow over our electoral process. While the Trump administration promotes the false narrative of widespread voter fraud, we know the real issues are the targeted and coordinated efforts to disenfranchise African-American, Latinx, and other vulnerable communities across the country. Fighting for equal access to the ballot box, pushing back against voter suppression, ensuring that we have a fair and accurate census to inform the 2020 redistricting cycle, and ending racial gerrymandering must be the cornerstones of today’s racial justice agenda.

The evidence is overwhelming and clear: voter suppression is alive and well in 2019. In Texas, election officials brazenly rolled out a flawed voter purge list alleging that more than 95,000 non-citizens were on the registration rolls, and that 58,000 had voted illegally. In the following weeks, officials quietly dialed back their claims after they were proven to be false. These allegations were clearly intended to promote hysteria and lay the groundwork for the mass purging of registration rolls.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and our partners filed a lawsuit on Feb. 4, 2019, against Texas Secretary of State David Whitley and other election officials for attempting to chill minority voter turnout and spur mass purges of legitimately-registered voters from the registration rolls. We charged Texas officials with disseminating a flawed advisory to counties that, in turn, flagged tens of thousands of registered voters for citizen reviews despite knowing that the list included naturalized citizens eligible to vote. In a letter sent to lawmakers on Feb. 13, 2019, Whitley issued the following apology: “I recognize this caused some confusion about our intentions, which were at all times aimed at maintaining the accuracy and integrity of the voter rolls. To the extent my actions missed that mark, I apologize.” While the apology did little to neutralize the impact of the state’s initial claims, it stands as a stark example of modern-day voter suppression.

Similarly, a widespread absentee ballot theft scheme in Bladen County, North Carolina, compelled the state’s Election Board to order a new election. Bladen County operative Leslie McCrae Dowless—who had previously drawn scrutiny in 2016 for election fraud—was hired by Republican candidate Mark Harris to rig the election in his favor. Dowless paid people to illegally collect absentee ballots from voters, including having his team forge signatures, fill in votes, act as witnesses, and mail in the ballots. During a hearing held by the Board of Elections, people who worked for Dowless laid bare the details of the criminal operation. At one point, Harris’s own son testified that he warned his father about Dowless and made clear that the already compromised operative was likely harvesting absentee ballots. As the evidence continued to mount against Harris, including evidence suggesting that he clearly lied under oath during the Board of Elections’ hearing, he finally relented and announced that he was withdrawing his bid to be declared the election winner. The North Carolina Board of Elections unanimously voted to hold a new election for the 9th Congressional District. What is even more shocking is that there is evidence that the Justice Department received details of the fraudulent scheme but took no action to stop it.

Ordering a new election for a congressional seat—a highly unusual remedy—has only happened on one other occasion in modern times, and underscores the reality that efforts to silence and disenfranchise voters are a real threat today.

In Georgia, we witnessed brazen voter suppression by the now-former Secretary of State Brian Kemp. The state’s “exact match” law, which requires citizens’ names on government-issued IDs to precisely match their names as listed on voter rolls, placed more than 53,000 voter registration applications in “pending” status and caused widespread confusion leading up to the 2018 midterm election. African-American voters were disproportionately impacted by this scheme.  

The Lawyers’ Committee  also fought Georgia voter suppression efforts at the local level in places like Randolph County, where officials sought to shutter polling sites, and Gwinnett County, where officials used voter signification rules as a pretext to reject en masse significant numbers of absentee ballots. Analysis in our litigation revealed that the officials’ actions had a disproportionate impact on Black and Asian-American voters.

Changing or closing polling site locations have become favored tactics in the attack on voting rights. We saw this in Dodge City, Kansas, where Ford County Clerk Deborah Cox moved the county’s single polling site outside city limits to a less accessible area after citing construction concerns. The evidence showed that the original site was still in use for other public activities during the week of the election. Hispanic residents, who account for more than half the population of Dodge City and are heavily reliant on public transportation, were significantly and detrimentally impacted by the move.

House Democrats are working on moving two bills through Congress that can help provide significant relief. The first—and more important bill—is the Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 4). This bill would restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965, gutted in the wake of the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder. That decision brought a central component of the Act—the Section 5 federal review provision—to a grinding halt. Section 5 required that states with long histories of voting discrimination obtain review and approval before putting new voting measures in place. It should come as no surprise that Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina repeatedly stand out as states with some of the starkest voter suppression efforts. These states were previously subject to federal review; without it, officials have been brazen in their attempts to disenfranchise voters. It is critical that both the House and Senate conduct thorough legislative hearings to document the continuing need for federal review of voting changes in certain parts of the country, and it is important that both chambers of Congress pass the bill in due time. In 2006, the last time the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized, 24 members of the Senate were present, including 13 Republicans and 10 Democrats. There was strong bipartisan consensus in 2006 that voting discrimination was ongoing and deep-seated in certain parts of the country—and these last 10 years have only provided further evidence of this.

The For the People Act (H.R. 1) is another comprehensive election reform bill that can help strengthen democracy by promoting automatic voter registration, putting in place guardrails against gerrymandering, and more.

Both bills should pass.

Looming over the growing crisis of voter suppression is the Trump administration’s inaction on protecting voting rights but active promotion of voter suppression at every turn. President Trump’s launch of the now-defunct Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity—a body formed under the guise of reviewing elections for voter fraud—was established to lay the groundwork for voter suppression measures.

The Lawyers’ Committee filed suit to stop the Commission, leading to Trump’s executive order to dismantle the Commission after less than eight months in operation. But at every turn, President Trump has boosted the false narrative of widespread voter fraud, using his Twitter feed to frighten voters with veiled threats of criminal prosecution and reward voter suppression efforts of malefactors, as we saw with the now-failed judicial nomination of Thomas Farr, a North Carolina lawyer who had made a career out of promoting voter suppression. Advocates won that battle, beating back Farr’s nomination, but President Trump continues to lay waste to our judicial landscape, dramatically altering the composition of the courts with similarly radical nominees.

Democracy is under attack in the United States, and African Americans and other racial minorities across the country are bearing the brunt. With collective action and a clear roadmap, we can bring about meaningful reform that prioritizes racial justice and democracy.

2020 (And Beyond) Roadmap:

  1. If you see something, say something.

Expose voter suppression efforts when they happen. Attend local election board meetings. Scrutinize changes and 11th hour attempts to alter voting rules in your community. The Lawyers’ Committee leads Election Protection—the nation’s largest non-partisan voter protection coalition—and you can call 866-OUR-VOTE to report voter suppression efforts.

  1. Fight for a fair 2020 census.

Make sure your community understands the importance of participating and being counted in the census. Historically, African Americans have faced some of the highest undercount rates. Billions of dollars in federal funding are allocated based on census data. Between now and the count, spread the word that “Everyone Counts!”

  1. Get Out the Vote in 2019 and 2020.

Critical elections are happening across the country right now and will intensify as we move into the 2020 election season. Every election counts, including local school board, city council, District Attorney contests, and more. Power extends beyond those who serve in Congress and can be felt at every level in our communities. We must engage in all elections, encourage participation, and work to turn out the vote on Election Day. Election Protection 866-OUR-VOTE educates and informs voters prior to and on Election Day.

  1. Hold your elected officials accountable.

Attend a town hall, write, call, or schedule a meeting with your elected officials at their local office. Too often, communities fail to apply the pressure needed to ensure that their officials are responsive to their needs and interests. Engaging with local officials is one way to ensure transparency and promote accountability.

  1. Gear up for the 2020 redistricting cycle. 

We need fair maps, and far too often, lawmakers construct maps that place the interests of politicians over voters. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has spent the past two years leading training sessions across the country to help groups prepare for redistricting. Through preparation now, we can be prepared to actively engage with lawmakers as they redraw district boundaries.

  1. Run for office.

Our democracy works best when the halls of government reflect the growing diversity of our country. Consider running for office as a way to bring about the change you want to see in your community.

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