Transcript: Marcia Johnson-Blanco’s remarks on voting rights at the 2012 CBC Summit
Edited by Jenny Jiang
Transcript of remarks by Marcia Johnson-Blanco, Co-Director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers Committee, on voting rights at the Congressional Black Caucus Summit on May 30, 2012:
“It’s a great pleasure for me to be here this morning to talk to you about a subject that unfortunately is one that we are grappling with decades after we thought we would be finished with it.
“I am the Voting Rights Co-Director from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. And 49 years ago, President Kennedy called the private bar to the White House and said, ‘We need your help in the fight for civil rights.’ You the church were out there in the streets and Kennedy said, ‘We need a partnership between the church and the bar to fight.’ And never suspecting that almost 50 years later – we celebrate our 50th anniversary next year – we are still in the same fight.
“We are, right now, at a crossroads in our democracy. Where after decades of increasing access to vote, we are now turning and reducing that access. And we’re now fighting unbelievably to make sure that all eligible voters have a right to vote. And we’re fighting against laws across the country that has been detailed that have the potential to disenfranchise millions of voters.
“And the frightening thing about this is that a lot of voters are not aware that these laws are being passed. And there are many people who went to the polls in 2008, in 2010 and don’t know that when they go to the polls in 2012 they may need an ID that they weren’t aware they needed to have. They may be planning still to go to the polls on Sunday before election day and finding out, ‘No, you can no longer vote there.’ They may find out that they may have been removed from the polls because states like Florida now have a purging regime where they’re using faulty databases they are actually sending notices to voters saying, ‘You’re not a citizen and you’re not eligible. If you believe we’re wrong, come to a hearing and bring proof.’ I mean, this is what we’re dealing right now in our democracy.
“And we’re hearing that the reason for this is voter fraud. Voter fraud is a phantom. Yes, there have been mistakes that people have made in trying to vote. But what we’ve discovered in their mistakes or maybe acts of individuals, but there is nothing within our democracy right now that threatens us to the extent that we need to take away the right of millions of voters to protect our democracy.
“We’re being fed this myth, and instead, what is happening is that the rights of millions and millions of voters are being taken away on our watch. And we cannot allow it to happen.
“And we need your voices to let your parishioners know what is happening, and we’re here to let you know that we’re here to work with you. Both Nicole and Deb have mentioned resources that are available.
“I’m going to talk to you a bit more about some resources that we have available and Judy will also.
“The other battle that’s going on is that the heart of the Voting Rights Act is under attack. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires states with a history of discrimination to get federal approval before instituting their voting changes, that heart of the Voting Rights Act is under attack.
“Right now in federal court we’ve intervened in a case where Shelby County, Alabama has brought a challenge to this Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
“Florida and the changes that Deb mentioned, when they withdrew the review from the DOJ [Department of Justice], took it to the courts and say, ‘We want the courts decide whether we can pass these laws. And oh by the way, if the courts decide that we can’t pass these laws, if the court objects, we challenge the constitutionality of Section 5 which requires us to do that.’
“And similarly, Texas – after Texas passed its photo ID law and DOJ says, ‘This law discriminates against minorities and we object,’ they’re now in the D.C. Court asking the court to approve the voter ID law, ‘Oh and by the way, we challenge the constitutionality of Section 5.’
“So far the district courts in D.C. and the D.C. Circuit Court have upheld the constitutionality of Section 5. But this is going to be before the Supreme Court next term. And we need your voices to speak up about why Section 5 is needed, because as we saw in Texas and in South Carolina, the Department of Justice was able to show that these voter ID laws that people are saying, ‘What are the big deal?’ They show that they discriminate against minorities. This is why Section 5 is still needed. This is why Congress decided that Section 5 was still needed. And we need to protect the heart of the Voting Rights Act.
“We’re now in the horrible position of fighting to hold on to gains that we made decades ago, that we thought, ‘Oh that’s over. Let’s move on to the next fight.’ The battle continues.
“I also wanted to mention the National Voter Registration Act – NVRA – motor voter. We passed that in 1991 to make it easier to register to vote. That has not being implemented. The NVRA motor voter is not being implemented. We’ve actually had to bring litigation against states – the state of Ohio, the state of Missouri, the state of Indiana, the state of Georgia – to enforce registration opportunities when people go to public assistance agencies. And because of our litigation, now over a million voters have been offered the opportunity to register to vote.
“I’ve been asked to explain more about Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. So, as we know, we’ve lived the history where states that discriminated against minorities and the Voting Rights Act requires those states before any voting change they make, they have to submit to either DOJ or the District Court in the District of Columbia for approval before they could be implemented, such as the photo ID law that Texas passed that said, ‘No, you can’t use a student ID in order to vote but you can use your concealed gun permit in order to be able to vote.’ And South Carolina that has also passed similar laws. Before those laws could be implemented, they have to get reviewed, and DOJ said, ‘No. These laws discriminate.’ The law does allow them to go to the courts and now they’re before the court, and like I said they’re challenging the very basis of having to submit to this review.
“So all of these laws that you’ve been hearing about have been passed. They pose a special challenge to us, and that challenge is that now we have to take back our democracy. We have to fight back for our democracy. We have to raise our voices. We have to let the people – the voters – out there who are unaware of these changes we need to join together and let them know that the changes have occurred. Those that need that ID in Pennsylvania or Tennessee, we have to see how we can help to get the ID that’s needed. Those who are in Texas or South Carolina need to know that even though the states passed voter ID law, they’re not yet being implemented. And we have all together come up with various resources, and I want to talk to you a bit about that.
“In 2000 – after the presidential election of 2000 and voters were purged and voters couldn’t vote, we in the bar realized that litigation alone was not the best way to address problems in voting and formed the Election Protection Coalition.
“This is a coalition to help voters before and on election day to be able to exercise their right to vote, to answer any questions that they have.
“We have a hotline, a nationwide hotline – 866-OUR-VOTE that voters can call, have their answers before election day – on election day if they’re at the polls and someone is saying, ‘You can’t vote.’ Call. We have trained attorneys who are there to answer their calls.
“In 2008, we had 10,000 trained legal volunteers. We plan to have the same for 2012. We’ve also created a resource sheet. We have handouts available – here on the table here to all of you – I urge you to get one – that talk about our website, the 866ourvote website where you can find information on all the laws in all the states.
“If you want to work with voters to help them get new ID, we actually did a report along with other organizations about groups in Tennessee and Wisconsin that are trying to help voters get ID – what works, what doesn’t work, the resources that are needed. So we have that guide.
“We also are developing a smartphone app and because we realize that for the younger people this is the way they get their information and use their information. So the smartphone app will let you know election dates. It will help you to register to vote. It will answer questions that you may have.
“So all of these resources are available to you.
“We talked about the voting changes we have here. The visual – the ‘Map of Shame’ that Barb Arnwine has aptly named, which shows all the changes in voting laws, electorates disenfranchised voters.
“So in closing I just want to say that we need you. We need the partnership between the bar and the church to continue. And you are the voices for the parishioners out there that need to know about these changes, and we stand ready to provide you with any information that you may need in order to do so.
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