Transcript: Deborah Vagins’ remarks on voting rights at the 2012 CBC Summit
Edited by Jenny Jiang
Transcript of remarks by Deborah J. Vagins, Senior Legislative Counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, on voting rights at the Congressional Black Caucus Summit on May 30, 2012:
“I’m Deborah Vagins with the ACLU in Washington, D.C., and I work in the Congress, the White House and the agencies trying to promote voting rights.
“But I also represent the larger organization that also works on voting rights from three angles. We pursue litigation in state and federal courts. We lobby at the federal and state level. And we also engage in public education in a variety of communities.
“And I quickly want to touch on the trend that you’ve heard about so far, which is this new wave of attacks on the right to vote. And in particular I want to talk about the criminal disfranchisement laws and a little bit about what the ACLU is doing to combat these laws and our work with the faith community and how you could get involved.
“So as you’ve heard, there’s been a variety of different forms of attacks. We’ve heard about voter ID and citizenship requirements and limitations on early voting. These tactics are all different but the impact is the same. And the impact and the intent is to exclude certain groups from the electorate – the bottom line.
“So all of these laws place disproportionate burdens on African-Americans, the elderly, people with disabilities, students, low-income and language minority voters, and it is not a coincidence.
“The ACLU is working in virtually all of the states that have passed new laws, and we’re challenging voter ID in Wisconsin, for example, along with people on this panel, citizenship requirements in Alabama and defending the very constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act, which is also under attack.
“And in the context of this larger trend though there’s a smaller trend but a very important trend that’s happening and very, very alarming.
“In Florida, Iowa, and South Dakota, they have rolled back voting rights for people with criminal convictions even though they have been voting for years without negative consequences.
“And the trends in the states before that, for 15 years, had been toward easing of these restoration requirements. Even on a bipartisan basis, Republican Governors had been supporting the easing of these requirements.
“And here we are about to face another important election and there are millions of people who have served their time and because of just this issue only – not even of all the other issues we’ve talked about but this issue only – who won’t be able to vote.
“And we understand that just in Florida alone up to one million people will be affected by this new draconian law.
“So I want to give a little bit of a background about it.
“The lay of the land – this is what the country looks like. Every state, almost every state, has a different law.
“And two states – there are two states where you can actually vote from prison. They’re the most progressive states on this issue, which are Maine and Vermont.
“And there are four states – Kentucky, Virginia, Florida, and Iowa – that essentially ban you for voting for life unless you have individual clemency from a Governor, which is almost impossible. Sometimes there’s a 13-year waiting period just to get your clemency hearing, and then clemency is rarely given.
“And the rest of the states fall somewhere in between. You have to wait for parole or probation to be over.
“So in total there are 5.3 million people who can’t vote because of a criminal conviction, and there are four million of those people who are in our communities working, paying taxes, sending their kids to school who have no voice in the political process.
“One of the most problematic features of criminal disenfranchisement laws is that it is directly tied to discrimination in America. And the impact continues today.
“So even though these laws existed since the Revolutionary War period, what happened – and you heard Mr. Butterfield eloquently discuss this – in part of the larger backlash against Reconstruction, laws – we talked about it: poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests – those all were designed to suppress the black vote as well as felony disfranchisement laws.
“But the story of those is less well-known and less told but they were all passed as part of the same scheme.
“Now, the Voting Rights Act got rid of those other forms of discrimination, although we’re seeing a rise again – right? – in some of these laws. Unfortunately, criminal disfranchisement laws continue, and as I said the impact continues today.
“The Sentencing Project has estimated that 13% of African-American men have lost the right to vote, which is seven times the national average. And Latino citizens, who are over-represented in prisons, are disproportionately impacted by the laws when the come out of jail as well.
“What we are seeing, I fear, is a national disgrace. Seventy percent of the people who are disfranchised by these laws, as I said, are part of our community, are part of your parishes, are trying to have a voice, but generations are being silenced.
“Federal congressional action is needed. There is a bill pending in Congress called the ‘Democracy in Restoration Act’, and we would love your help with that. The faith community has been an incredible partner on the DRA – the Democracy Restoration Act – coalition. You have always been stalwarts and advocates for change. The groups that work with us emphasize the role of redemption and rehabilitation and why it’s important to have this fundamental right restored.
“And thanks in large part to efforts of the Brennan Center, members of the faith community – active members – and there is a letter here that we’ve signed with members of the faith community we’ve sent to Congress. And we would love for your parishes and churches to be joined on that letter.
“Finally, one other thing I wanted to mention is some of the litigations that we’re doing also with the faith community and how you might be able to join that effort. You’ve heard about the restrictions also on early voting and how that’s impacting the Sunday before elections.
“In Ohio, yet another tactic stop people from voting, they passed H.B. 194 and would eliminate early voting. It would eliminate requirement that poll workers help you find the right precinct if you’re in the wrong place. It would make absentee voting more difficult. Despite statistics showing that all of these have eased the voting administration process in Ohio.
“And what we’ve seen is that members of the faith community in Ohio have really demonstrated how this is going to be problematic. There are souls to the polls programs that many of the churches – that maybe many of your churches – organize where they’re bringing entire congregations to the boards of elections to vote early. And it was extremely popular in 2008 in Ohio where there were lines for early voting. And this law in Ohio will eliminate that Sunday. It’s not yet gone into effect and this is where you can help.
“Because the ACLU of Ohio, our coalition partners, the faith community, the state legislators have all worked together, it’s now on the ballot to give the people of Ohio a voice in determining what’s going to happen to them. But after November, the future of the souls to the polls program and early voting itself is in jeopardy. So we need your help.
“And we also – the ACLU has created podcasts and other things with the pastors that we work with who are trying to elevate this message of how important early voting is and how these restrictions are clearly targeted attack to stop people from voting.
“And lastly, I want to wrap up, in Florida there’s a similar story. There’s another bill – unfortunately it has passed – H.B. 1355. It was an omnibus voting rights bill. It had 80 changes to the Florida election laws and it became law in May. It cuts back, among other things, early voting. Again, the Sunday before the elections, of course. And there are a variety of other things. This is also, keep in mind, one of the states that rolled back the criminal disfranchisement laws. So from 2008, the Sunday before the election, African-American voters accounted for 30% of the voting turnout in Florida. Once again, not a coincidence this has been changed.
“So we’ve strongly opposed this and we’re working together with the faith community among other coalition partners in Florida. And we’re currently litigating with other groups this law, but we’ll need your help there.
“And the last thing that I wanted to end with is the ACLU is creating ‘know your rights’ materials. So as we get closer to the election over the summer, we’re going to have brochures and cards and you can distribute in a lot of these states that have passed problematic laws.
“We’re going to talk about early voting in states that have done that. We’re going be talking about criminal disfranchisement in states that have done that. So you can pass it out so your parishioners can be aware of what their rights are, what they can do, and how they can get involved. You can go to ACLU.org and start downloading that material by the end of the summer.
“Thank you very much.”
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