CCC panel explores strategies for protecting voter rights

March 19, 2021
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Early Voting Sign

Courtesy of Adobe Stock

As the 2021 legislative session unfolds, conversations around voting rights are front and center in state legislatures across the nation. Some 253 bills have been introduced in 44 states that would make changes to voting rights, representing a 600% increase compared to this time last year. Today, CSG East’s Council on Communities of Color (CCC) held a virtual panel discussion with state officials and voting rights advocates to explore the potential impact of these proposals on Black, Brown, and Indigenous voters in communities nationwide.

The panel was the first of CCC’s 2021 “Movement Summit Series,” which convenes state and local policymakers and experts working on equitable governing solutions. The panel was hosted in conjunction with All Voting is Local, a nonprofit that works to remove barriers to voting, theBEnote.com, and media partner WURD radio.

A history of voter suppression

During today’s discussion, panelists noted that laws restricting access to voting have a long legacy in this country, dating back to the post-Reconstruction era. Following passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, which gave Black men the right to vote and led to a wave of Black elected officials, white lawmakers, threatened by the shift in political power, tried to hinder the Black vote with new laws designed to restrict access to the polls, through poll taxes, literacy tests, and other measures. White supremacy groups tried to restrict Blacks from voting through terror and violence.

“We have an ugly history that transcends political party,” said Pennsylvania State Representative Chris Rabb, during today’s discussion. The current state legislative proposals have roots in those laws enacted some 150 years ago, he said. “Voter suppression laws today have a genealogy to white supremacy laws that were on the books in many states.”

The 1965 Voting Rights Act banned literacy tests and other restrictions, and provided federal oversight of voter registration in areas where fewer than 50% of people of color were registered to vote. But voting rights experts say that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 gutted the act by freeing states and municipalities with a history of racial discrimination from being required to seek the federal government’s approval to change their voting laws.

While recent state proposals do not specifically target voters of color, critics say provisions such as tighter voter identification requirements, restricting early voting, and shuttering polling stations would have the effect of limiting participation among members of communities of color.

Congress is currently considering two federal bills, H.R. 1 and H.R. 4, which would strengthen voting protections. H.R. 1, known as the For the People Act, includes a number of provisions that would make it easier for Americans to register to vote, and would ban partisan gerrymandering. The bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives on March 3.

“H.R. 1 includes preclearance, which was gutted by the Supreme Court from the federal voting rights act. It is critical,” said Georgia State Representative Bee Nguyen. “If we can’t get this done it will change the trajectory of our country — we will see irreparable damage. It will have lasting consequences.”

Another bill, H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named in honor of the late civil rights leader and longtime congressman, would combat racial discrimination in voting and strengthen the protections of the Voting Rights Act.

Scott Seeborg, Pennsylvania state director of All Voting is Local, said studies show that most Americans favor greater access to voting. Some 70 percent of all voters support early voting, and 74 percent support access to absentee ballots, he said.

“We know that elections are secure,” said Seeborg. “When we center our values and frame these voter-suppression efforts as silencing our voices, I think we are able to push back against these frames. This is about values, about freedom.”

A recording of today’s discussion will be available shortly.

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