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SPLC launches voting rights legal team, testifies before U.S. House panel in Alabama

Ever since state and local law enforcement officers attacked peaceful civil rights marchers with billy clubs and tear gas on “Bloody Sunday” in 1965, Alabama has been at the epicenter of the fight for voting rights.

“Alabama regularly ranks near the bottom in voter registration, voter engagement and voter turnout, but state officials have shown little interest in making any reforms that might increase political engagement across the state,” said Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for voting rights at the SPLC.

“Instead, they have prioritized addressing the virtually non-existent specter of voter fraud, removing hundreds of thousands of Alabamians from the voter rolls and spreading misleading information about voter registration rates in the state.”

Abudu testified today in Birmingham during a field hearing held by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on House Administration, which is gathering evidence of voter problems in seven states in an effort to strengthen the Voting Rights Act after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder.

“The infamous Shelby County v. Holder case, which gutted the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act, originated just down the road in Shelby County, Alabama,” Abudu said. “In the years since that devastating decision, Alabama lawmakers have enacted a bevy of laws that make it harder for citizens to access the ballot box while simultaneously declining to implement reforms like no-excuse absentee and early voting that are now commonplace across the nation.”

The SPLC today also announced the formation of a new legal team to challenge laws and practices that suppress the votes of minority voters or dilute their political power through partisan gerrymandering. It will also work to engage voters across the Deep South.

The SPLC, for example, is suing Mississippi to overturn a Jim Crow-era law that strips voting rights, for life, from people convicted of certain crimes. Today, the law prevents one of every six black adults in the state – and some 200,000 people overall – from voting.

The SPLC also submitted written testimony to the House of Representatives committee, protesting Jim Crow-era voter suppression laws in Florida, when the committee held a hearing there on May 6.

Today’s testimony focused specifically on Alabama.

“It is unfortunate that we are making it harder for people to vote and not easier for people to vote,” said U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama, one of three committee members present at the hearing. “We need to go out and vote in numbers that we’ve never seen before in every election, because that’s the only way we’re going to turn it around. In Alabama we need help. We need federal oversight.”

Abudu repeated to the committee comments from Alabama’s top election official that indicated he views voting as a “privilege” and believes “casting a ballot should be a challenge.”

“In 2016, Secretary of State John Merrill told a documentary film crew, and I quote, ‘If you’re too sorry or lazy to get up off of your rear and to go register to vote … then you don’t deserve that privilege. As long as I’m secretary of state of Alabama, you’re going to have to show some initiative to become a registered voter in this state.’

“He also expressed hostility to early voting on multiple occasions saying, and again I quote, ‘There is no future for early voting as long as I’m secretary of state.’ So, this means that the man in charge of administering Alabama’s elections freely admits that he does not see voting as a fundamental right that he is charged with safeguarding. Instead, he sees voting as a privilege reserved only for those with the time and resources to navigate the outdated and archaic system he continues to oversee.”

With the 2020 Census and redistricting cycle for federal and state legislative districts quickly approaching, the SPLC will work to ensure that historically disenfranchised communities are educated about the redistricting process and trained on how to play a significant role in drawing political boundaries. The SPLC will also assist those communities in identifying and remedying violations that prevent them from casting ballots.

Further, the SPLC will engage in legislative efforts to expand automatic voter registration, same-day registration, no-excuse absentee voting, vote by mail, and early voting – or, in states such as Alabama and Mississippi, finally establishing those practices used widely by neighboring states

In her testimony, Abudu addressed Alabama’s voter ID law, which requires voters to show a state-approved form of photo identification in order to vote. The law discriminates against minority voters who are less likely to have such identification, she said.

Additionally, according to SPLC research, Merrill has promoted confusing and misleading information about voters in the state, such as a statement that 94 percent of eligible Alabamians and 96 percent of eligible black voters are registered, she said. However, the Census Bureau estimates that 69 percent of eligible Alabamians and 67 percent of eligible black voters were registered at the time of the 2018 election.

Abudu also cited voter purges in Alabama as a way in which the state has depressed voter engagement and turnout.

In her closing remarks, Abudu addressed proposed legislation in Alabama that could expand voters’ access to the polls, including bills that would establish modest early voting programs, giving Alabamians more opportunities to cast their ballots, and a bill that would streamline the rights restoration process for Alabamians who have a disqualifying felony conviction. She also cited a bill that would create an automatic voter registration system, allowing more Alabamians to get registered. The bill would also improve the accuracy of the state’s voter rolls, she said.

“It is not that the state is lacking in ideas, “Abudu said. “We are lacking in the will to make these ideas a reality.”

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