JoAnne Bland was only 12 when she collapsed in horror on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. State troopers were brutalizing people all around her – including her sister – with tear gas, clubs, whips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire, simply because they sought the right to vote.
Television footage of the “Bloody Sunday” attack sparked national outrage, galvanized public opinion in favor of Black suffrage, and mobilized Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed racial discrimination in voting.
The Voting Rights Act is widely recognized as the most effective civil rights legislation ever passed. Since 1965, it has enabled millions of Black, Latinx, Asian American and Native American citizens who were previously denied suffrage an equal opportunity to cast a ballot.
But seven years ago today, on June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court seriously weakened the landmark law. The Shelby County v. Holder decision meant that states with histories of racial discrimination were no longer required to pre-clear changes in voting rules with the federal government before they went into effect.
Unsurprisingly, that decision has led to the enactment of a host of voter suppression tactics such as purging voter rolls, restricting voting rights of returning citizens, instituting onerous voter ID laws, limiting access to voting by mail, and other measures that disproportionately affect low-income and Black and brown voters.
As deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Voting Rights Practice Group, I lead a team that advocates for equal voting rights across the South.
Our support for grassroots organizations that will empower people to vote this election season and beyond is one weapon we are using to fight voter suppression.
The SPLC – in partnership with the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta – recently launched its Vote Your Voice initiative with an investment of up to $30 million from its endowment to support nonpartisan, nonprofit voter outreach organizations in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi.
The Vote Your Voice campaign seeks to empower communities of color by aiding them in their fight against voter suppression; back Black- and brown-led voter mobilization organizations often ignored by traditional funders; support and prototype effective voter engagement strategies; and re-enfranchise returning citizens despite intentional bureaucratic challenges.
‘We couldn’t be more polarized’
Years before I joined the SPLC, I was a lawyer representing the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP in Shelby County, Alabama, where the Shelby County v. Holder decision originated.
I was at the hearing during the oral argument. I remember reading the case decision and wondering how the highest court in the land could really believe that we were a post-racial society where voters of color no longer needed protection.
And here we are today: We couldn’t be more polarized.
Look no further than the recent election in Georgia, where we saw poll closures, malfunctioning machines, missing ballots that forced voters to wait in line for hours — or forfeit their constitutional rights — and where even the Atlanta mayor had to vote in person because her absentee ballot never arrived.
As our recent report found in Alabama, there are many ways in which elected officials are still suppressing the vote in the 21st century, particularly after the Shelby decision allowed them to do so.
As I testified before a congressional panel on voter suppression last year, Alabama consistently ranks near the bottom in voter registration, engagement and turnout, but state officials have shown little interest in making reforms that would increase political engagement.
Instead, they have conjured up the false notion of rampant voter fraud, using this propaganda to remove hundreds of thousands of Alabamians from the voter rolls. They have also spread misleading information about voter registration rates in the state, making the numbers seem higher than they are in reality.
Across the Southern states, in fact, you see a litany of polling place closures and photo ID requirements, restrictions on early voting, and efforts to block voting by mail in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with people being forced to choose between their health – and that of their loved ones – and their constitutional rights. We are seeing a disparate impact on people of color.
Oversight disappears from the Deep South
We could have at least temporarily blocked some of these disenfranchisement efforts if Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act had not been eliminated by Shelby v. Holder.
However, none of the Deep South states are still required to get federal approval before making changes to voting practices that make it harder for people to vote. While there are places in other parts of the country that should also be covered under Section 5, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama and Georgia stand out in particular. Some Southern states have been especially brazen in their voter suppression tactics following the Supreme Court decision.
Florida, for example, has been sued several times over the last seven years, including the recent SPLC lawsuit that successfully challenged a modern-day poll tax. A federal court held that requiring people who lack the financial means to pay off certain debts cannot be the basis for denying them the right to vote.
We’ve also sued Alabama and Louisiana over their onerous absentee ballot laws in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, seeking to eliminate burdensome requirements on absentee voters and make in-person voting more accessible. In Alabama, a federal judge recently issued a preliminary injunction waiving some of those requirements.
Across the country, state officials try to create the false impression that if elections in the predominantly white precincts are running smoothly, then there must be something wrong with the more urban, racially diverse areas where problems persist. They try to make it seem as if the issues with voting in Black communities are somehow the fault of Black people, rather than what they really are: the product of a racist election system.
We have to pressure Congress to advance the nonpartisan principles behind Section 5.
As we approach the November election, it is critical that everyone has an equal opportunity to vote and that every vote be counted.
It’s a familiar struggle for JoAnne Bland, the girl who was overwhelmed on the Selma bridge in 1965 and grew up to become a voting rights activist.
“Why do you think we’re still struggling?” Bland recently told the USA Today Network. “If the scales of justice were equal, there’d be no reason to struggle. You ‘gave’ us the right to vote. But we’re your citizens, too. Why would you have to give us anything? But people see us as different. We’re not slaves anymore but that same mentality, the superiority/inferiority thing, is still there.”
Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images