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SPLC President Richard Cohen's remarks at the Congressional Forum on the Current State of Voting Rights in America

Today, SPLC President Richard Cohen joined Rep. Terri Sewell, Rep. John Lewis, Rep. Jim Clyburn, and others in Birmingham, Alabama, for the Congressional Forum on the Current State of Voting Rights in America. The following are his prepared remarks. 

Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting me to speak today.

The truth is, I wish I were not here. I wish none of us were here.

The fact that we must be here talking about voting rights 51 years after Congress passed the Voting Rights Act is a national disgrace, one that dishonors the many who fought for the precious right to vote and the millions who were disenfranchised for decades in our country because of their race.

It particularly dishonors the brave Americans who sacrificed their lives so that everyone, regardless of race, creed or color, could have a voice in our democracy – people like Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

A year ago at this time, we were celebrating the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. And, of course, we will observe the 51st anniversary in two days.

We all know that the events of that fateful day and the subsequent completion of the march to Montgomery led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, perhaps the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement – one that drove the final nail into the coffin of Jim Crow.

Forty-one years later, in 2006, when it reauthorized Section 4, Congress remarked on the tremendous progress that had been made under the Act to address first-generation barriers to voting – like literacy tests and poll taxes – that kept many minority voters from casting ballots.

At the same time, Congress noted that vestiges of discrimination continued in the states covered by the original Act in the form of second-generation barriers that diluted the voting strength of African Americans and other minorities. These included such practices as gerrymandering, at-large voting and the use of multi-member legislative districts.

Today, 10 years later, we still have those second-generation barriers.

For example, the Alabama legislature in 2012 passed a redistricting plan that packed black voters into legislative districts, thereby reducing their influence in other districts. In 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that there was strong evidence the lawmakers had engaged in racial gerrymandering and that the state had used the wrong legal standard to draw the districts. The case is pending before the district court.

But second-generation barriers are not the only problem today.

Tragically, we’re once again fighting the battle to remove first-generation barriers that suppress the votes of minorities – a battle that was fought 50 years ago.

These barriers include a raft of state laws that have gone into effect in recent years. They include photo ID laws, cutbacks in early voting, curbs in voter registration drives, the end of same-day registration, and much more.

Many have been implemented since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act in its Shelby decision. The passage of the laws restricting voting rights has, in fact, accelerated since Shelby.

Here in Alabama, the legislature passed a law in 2011 that requires voters to produce one of seven kinds of photo IDs. But, even though preclearance by the Justice Department was still required under the Voting Rights Act at the time, the state did not submit it for review. Instead, it waited two years.

Then, on June 26, 2013, the very next day after the Supreme Court relieved Alabama and other states of their preclearance obligations, the state announced it would begin to enforce the law.

The Alabama Secretary of State’s office has estimated that at least 280,000 registered voters – disproportionately minority voters – lack the type of photo IDs required to vote.

It’s questionable whether Alabama’s photo ID law would have been precleared by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act. It can, of course, still be challenged in federal court – and, indeed, it is being challenged. But blocking the law is much more difficult in a lawsuit, because the burden of proof is on the plaintiffs to show discriminatory intent or effect. Prior to Shelby, the burden of proof was on states like Alabama – which have long histories of discrimination against African Americans – to show that any new law would not have a retrogressive or racially discriminatory impact.

To add insult to injury, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley last year reduced the operating hours of the state offices in 27 largely poor, rural counties where residents can obtain the IDs they need to meet the requirements of the photo ID law. African Americans make up a larger share of the population in those counties than in other parts of the state, where the office hours were not curtailed.

Rather than move toward same-day registration, the Alabama Legislature has moved further from it since Shelby. Despite the fact that for many years voters were allowed to register 10 days in advance of an election – and despite technological advances – in 2014 the legislature extended the period to 14 days. Since then, there have been legislative attempts to extend it even further – to 30 days.

Alabama, of course, is not alone in enacting racially discriminatory voting laws.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 33 states now have some form of voter ID law in effect. And, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, 21 states have enacted new restrictions since the 2010 mid-term elections. Sixteen have new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election.

In addition, 27 states have attempted to purge their voting rolls since Shelby, leading to numerous lawsuits claiming these purges targeted minority voters.

Also, some states are now pushing to make voters prove their citizenship when registering.

A recent decision by the federal Election Assistance Commission has allowed Alabama, Georgia and Kansas to require documentation of citizenship for anyone registering to vote. This creates an undue burden for many – particularly minorities, young people, the elderly and the poor – who may lack easy access to their birth certificate, passport, naturalization certificate or other proof.

At the center of these efforts is Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who doubles as counsel for a nativist extremist organization called the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Kobach was the architect of the notorious anti-immigrant law in Arizona known as SB 1070 – a discriminatory law that was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Kobach was also behind an even more draconian, anti-immigrant law in Alabama, HB 57, which was also dismantled by the courts.

The cumulative impact of all of these efforts to suppress the vote is that millions of Americans – minorities, the elderly, the disabled and others – will be disenfranchised, their voices silenced.

And that is, of course, the goal of these laws. The movement to restrict the vote, as we all know, has nothing to do with combating “voter fraud,” which is, essentially, nonexistent in our country.

Here in Alabama, our secretary of state, John Merrill, has characterized voting as a “privilege.”

And I think that statement, in some ways, reveals a certain mindset that we are facing.

We would never call our First Amendment freedoms of speech and religion privileges.

We would never call our right to bear arms a privilege.

We would certainly never call it a privilege to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Privileges are something to be earned or granted. They can be taken away. The rights guaranteed under our Constitution cannot.

We firmly support Congressional efforts to restore the federal preclearance requirement that was stripped from the Voting Rights Act in Shelby.

But we know that restoring the Voting Rights Act will not resolve all of the problems. Our country’s needs broader reform. We need a new vision for voting to bring the system into the 21st century.

The election process in the United States is a relic of the 18th and 19th centuries – an era when only white male property owners were allowed to vote and when Congress was more concerned about the time it took to travel to polling stations on horse than two-hour lines at the polls. The current system makes sense in the context of the 1850s, but it ignores the technology and the complexities of life and work in today’s world.

The reason we vote on Tuesday illustrates the point.

In 1845, Congress determined that Tuesday was the best day to hold elections because Saturday was a workday for farmers, Sunday the Sabbath, and Wednesday was a market day. Tuesday gave voters a full day to travel by horse to the county polling station.

Not only are Tuesdays now a workday for most Americans, but having only a 12-hour window to vote completely ignores today’s work schedules, childcare needs, and other features of modern life. This system particularly disadvantages lower-income people who are more likely to work for hourly wages, who often cannot afford to miss work, or who may not be allowed to leave their job.

For a country that prides itself on our democracy – a country that has sacrificed thousands of our brave young men and women in the fields of war in defense of our democratic values – this is simply not acceptable.

We can and must do better.

For starters, we must restore the preclearance requirement that was shredded in Shelby. The political machinations of the last few years have laid bare the unfortunate reality that certain powerful forces will use whatever means are at their disposal – however anti-democratic – to retain power.

We also must roll back the many new state laws that silence the voices of millions of eligible voters.

And, we must modernize our antiquated elections system in ways that make sense for the world we live in today – in ways that will bring many more people, not fewer, to the ballot box and result in government that is truly of the people, by the people and for the people. Our recommendations are contained in the appendix to this statement.

As the Declaration of Independence says, governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. It does not say “some” of the governed.

We must ensure that everyone has a voice. The future of our great democracy depends on it.


How To Modernize Our Election System: SPLC Recommendations

The Southern Poverty Law Center recommends that the following measures be adopted by all states to improve ballot access.

Automatic Voter Registration

Requiring every eligible citizen to register before voting is an unnecessary hurdle to participating in the democratic process. It might have made sense 150 years ago when state governments had few records (and no electronic records) and most adults were not actually eligible to vote. Today, it is easy for governments to verify when someone has attained voting age or has become a resident of the state so that they can be automatically registered. Recently Oregon and California adopted automatic voter registration laws; the states use DMV data to enroll unregistered citizens unless they opt out. Same-day registration will also be needed to cover citizens who are not covered by automatic registration.

Eliminate Voter ID Laws

Voter impersonation simply doesn’t happen. A recent investigation of 1 billion cast ballots found only 31 credible instances of it. Nevertheless, many states have enacted laws to prevent it. These voter ID laws create obstacles to voting because many people — especially the young, elderly, poor, and minorities — do not have photo IDs and may lack easy access to the documents needed to obtain them. Some lawmakers have been accidentally candid in stating that this is the real intent of voter ID laws.

No-Excuse Absentee Voting

Voting should be made as convenient as possible to encourage participation. While most states allow for absentee voting by mail if a voter cannot or does not want to vote in person on Election Day, 20 states still require voters to provide a reason, such as out-of-state travel, why they cannot vote in person. There is no reason why absentee voting should be so limited. While some people may claim that increasing the number of people who can vote by mail will lead to fraud, in Oregon, everyone votes by mail, and voter fraud is exceedingly rare. Meanwhile, the state’s voter turnout is among the highest in the country.

Automatically Restore Voting Rights to All Ex-felons

In many states, ex-felons must apply to have their voting rights restored, and there are no guarantees that they will be successful. They should have full voting rights when they have paid their debt to society. Felony disenfranchisement laws were enacted with the explicit purpose of blocking African Americans from voting. State felony bans largely date to the late 1860s and 1870s when the Fifteenth Amendment — which guaranteed black Americans the right to vote — was proposed and adopted. These laws were later strengthened during the Jim Crow era. Today in Alabama, for example, 15 percent of African Americans have lost the right to vote through the state’s felon disenfranchisement law (as well as the fact that they are more likely to be arrested for many crimes).

Move Election Day to Saturday and Allow Early Voting

In 1845, Congress determined that Tuesday was the best day to hold elections because Saturday was a workday for farmers, Sunday the Sabbath, and Wednesday was a market day. Tuesday gave voters a full day to travel by horse to the county polling station. Not only are Tuesdays now a workday for most Americans, but having only a 12-hour window to vote completely ignores today’s work schedules, childcare needs, and other features of modern life. This system particularly disadvantages lower-income people who typically work for hourly wages, often cannot afford to miss work, or may not be allowed to leave their job. Further, even with our nation’s overall low turnout rates, many polling places do not have adequate capacity, resulting in unacceptably long lines that suppress voting; in Florida, for example, voters in 2012 waited 45 minutes on average. Obviously Congressional action will be needed to change the day of federal elections, but early voting can be adopted on the state level.

Photo credit: SEIU/Flickr