Transcript: Nicole Austin-Hillery’s remarks on voting rights at the 2012 CBC Summit

Edited by Jenny Jiang

Transcript of remarks by Nicole Austin-Hillery, Director and Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, on voting rights at the Congressional Black Caucus Summit on May 30, 2012:

“Thank you all so much for gathering here today and for inviting us to come and talk to you just a little bit about the work that we all do and our efforts to really protect our democracy.

“All of us who sit before you today work with organizations – major organizations – that really work to protect the core principle of our democracy, which is the voting right here in our country.

“And we want to talk to you about number one, making sure that you have a good understanding of exactly what’s been happening over the past year in terms of state laws that have been passed, litigations that’s occurring, and really the assault that’s underway that is threatening every American’s right to vote – not just black Americans, white Americans, Latino Americans. Every American’s right to vote is being threatened because when you challenge that right, you are challenging that right for everyone and that’s something that we all need to be concerned about.

“The Brennan Center for Justice is the organization that I represent. I serve as the director and counsel for the Washington office for the Brennan Center.

“We are a non-profit legal advocacy think tank organization, and we really take a three-prong approach to the issues that we work on.

“We litigate. We produce scholarly work. And we do advocacy work here in Washington, D.C.

“Those are really the ways in which we think we could be most effective in trying to defend our democracy and protect our democracy.

“And we work on issues as vast as voting rights, criminal justice, racial justice.

“We look at the judicial – the courts and protecting the courts.

“But what I’m here to talk to you about today is the work that we do with respect to voting rights.

“If you haven’t seen this – and I didn’t have 250 copies, which I heard you all were here strong and that we needed a lot of copies. I brought my only one but I’m going to tell you how you can get it.

“This report is called “Voting Law Changes in 2012” and this is a report that the Brennan Center for Justice drafted and introduced in the fall of 2011.

“We put this report together for one reason and that is because we wanted folks like you to have a one-stop resource where you could go to find out what in the world has been going on across the country in terms of these voting law changes.

“We know we had been hearing on the news that one state was passing a law dealing with voter ID – requiring people to come to the poll with IDs.

“And then we heard that another state was passing a law that said, ‘You know what? That Sunday voting that you do the Sunday before the election, we’re going to do away with that.’

“It was all coming at us so quickly. And what we said was we need a tool that will enable individuals to have a good understanding of what in the heck is going on in the country because we all know that knowledge is power. And in order for you to even understand how to help your parishioners, your community members, you have to have a good understanding of what’s going on in the country and that’s what this report does.

“But here’s the frightening thing. We produced this report in October of 2011. It’s already outdated. It’s outdated because the efforts that are underway to change these laws are fast and furious. They continue throughout all of the state legislative periods across the country.

“So what I’m going to do is tell you a little bit – I’m going to give you the numbers. And I know that numbers are boring. When I was in college, I remember I used to tell my statistics professor, ‘I don’t need these numbers.’ And lo and behold, he laughs at me and now because clearly what I do is deal with numbers. Because that information, again, is power.

“So I’m going to just give you a brief overview of exactly what the country looks like right now in terms of the laws that have been passed. How many people are actually affected? Who are the groups of people that are mostly affected?

“And then my wonderful colleagues who are here with me today are going to talk to you a little bit more about what’s going on the ground in terms of community advocacy, in terms of the litigation, and in terms of what you need to do in order to arm yourselves and your parishioners to be able to be prepared for the impact of these changes.

“We estimate in our Brennan Center report that up to five million voters will be impacted by these changes in laws across the country. Up to five million voters.

“And I know what you’ve been hearing about mostly in the news is this concept of voter ID. But you need to understand that this is not just about voter ID. There are a panoply of changes that have taken place that you need to understand.

“But first, let’s start out with the voter ID since that’s what we’re most familiar with.

“At least 34 states introduced legislation that would require voters to show photo identification in order to vote.

“And an additional four states introduced legislation requesting that voters show photo identification to actually register or to vote.

“What this means is when you show up to register to vote, previously you didn’t have to have a photo ID. Now these states are saying now you have to have these photo ID, and some of these states are saying that on the day that you show up on the polls you have to have that photo ID.

“Now, a lot of people say, ‘What’s the big deal? We all have IDs.’ Well, you know what? My 80-year-old great aunt does not have a photo ID anymore but she still wants to vote.

“Proof of citizenship laws is another way that these laws have taken effect. At least 15 states have introduced legislation that would require proof of citizenship, meaning you have to show your birth certificate or some other form of ID that shows you are a United States citizen in order to register to vote. And these proof of citizenship laws have passed in many states, including Alabama, Kansas, and Tennessee.

“And here’s something you need to understand when we talk about what’s changed. Previously, prior to 2011, only two states had passed proof of citizenship laws. Only two. And now, we have numerous states that have passed these laws.

“At least 16 states have introduced bills to make registering to vote more difficult.

“And they’ve done this by doing things like eliminating same-day voter registration.

“They have limited voter registration mobilization efforts. So organizations that normally have been on the ground to register voters are now being limited in some states.

“Some to the point where they have said, ‘We’re gonna close down shop. We are so fearful of these new laws – in understanding them, in ensuring that we are not running afoul of them. That instead of remaining in place in your states and ensuring we’re registering voters, we’re just going to leave.’

“Imagine the impact of that, because statistics show that many people, particularly minorities, use those third-party voter registration options. They register to vote when the NAACP sets up voter registration tables. They register to vote when the League of Women Voters sets up registration tables.

“So when those organizations are pulling out, that means those communities that have depended on them to do their voter registration are being gravely impacted.

“And several of these states have reduced early and absentee days. This means at least nine states introduced bills to reduce their early voting periods. And we know from 2008 that many, many voters took advantage of early voting so that they didn’t have to stand in line on Tuesdays. We know that some people can’t get off work. Some people can’t afford to stand in line for five or six hours. So these early voting days help those individuals. Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia were states that succeeded in enacting bills that reduced early voting.

“And then there are some states, finally, that have made it even harder to restore your voting rights. My colleague, Deb Vagins of the ACLU, is going to talk to you a little bit more about that.

“What this means is this: Individuals who were formerly incarcerated, who you would think once they’ve paid their debt to society are going to get their voting right restored because their right to pay taxes is restored. Their right to do all these other things – to obey the law has been restored.

“But, unbeknownst to many, their right to vote, in many instances, has not been restored. And even in states where they had previously been ahead of the game – states where they have said, ‘We recognize that when an individual has paid their debt to society, their right to vote should be restored.’

“Two of those states – Florida and Iowa – rolled back their laws, and they have now said, ‘I know we gave you that opportunity before.’ But now, under their new governorships, they’ve changed that. And again, my colleague, Deb Vagins, will talk to you a little bit more about that.

“So what do all these numbers mean? Again, this is what I used to ask my professors, ‘What do these numbers mean?’

“Here’s what they mean: This means that in 60% to 75% – with respect to 60% to 75% of all the electoral votes that it would take to elect the next President, those are the majority of states where these new laws have passed. The states that make up 60% to 75% of the electoral votes that will be required to elect our next President.

“Eleven percent of all Americans lack photo ID. A lot of people, again, say, ‘Who doesn’t have ID?’ But 11% of us don’t have it.

“Eighteen percent of Americans over the age of 65 lack photo ID, and 25% of African-Americans lack photo ID.

“At least 7% of Americans lack proof of citizenship. I know I don’t carry my birth certificate around, and I don’t know how many of you have birth certificates here with you. But I don’t have a document in my purse right now that says I am a United States citizen.

“And then with respect to women, 34% of women lack proof of citizenship with their current legal name. And my colleague, Judith Browne-Dianis, has heard me say this before…We have that problem. She’s Judith Browne-Dianis. My husband is Alexander Hillery. I’m now Austin-Hillery. They screwed us up. Well, we screwed ourselves – however you want to look at it.

“But now, as you might imagine…See? All the men are laughing. We’re going to leave that now. That’s another discussion. That’s a discussion for another day.


“But the bottom line is, it has now become more difficult for us. Because there are people who call me Hillery, and I say, ‘My first name is Nicole.’ They don’t get the Austin. It’s all confused.

“Now, Judith and I are lawyers. We are lawyers who are knowledgeable about voting rights and voting issues. Imagine the 34% of those women who don’t have this knowledge and this information.

“And when you talk about the voters who are no longer now going to be able to vote on Sunday, who are – I’m looking at you all because we all know many of the people that you represent are the individuals who are going to be impacted by those changes.

“Now, let me quickly get on to telling you what can be done, what kinds of things you can do.

“There are legal challenges that are going on across the country and my colleagues are going to talk to you about some of those legal challenges. The Brennan Center is involved in some of them. There’s a case in South Carolina. There’s a case in Texas.

“We are representing, along with some of my colleagues here, the League of Women Voters in Florida because Florida is one of those states that has really passed some laws that have made it very, very difficult for organizations, again, like the League of Women Voters to handle their voter registrations. The League of Women Voters is one of the groups that said, with respect to Florida, ‘You’ve made it so hard for us. We’re so concerned about this new law, we are pulling out.’ The League of Women Voters is not registering people to vote in the state of Florida right now pending this litigation. Those are things you need to be concerned about.

“Students are people that are being heavily impacted by these new laws. There are some states that say, ‘You know, if you come from a different state and you’re not from my state, your student ID is not good enough for us to accept in order to allow you to register to vote and then vote in this state.’ We need to be concerned about this.

“So we’re talking about the elderly, we’re talking about the students, we’re talking about minorities – black and brown people, and we’re talking about women of all colors, again, who have these funny names or who for some reason have changed their names and they don’t have this ID. This is what we need to be concerned about.

“And these battles, again, are continuing. As I’ve said, the information on our Brennan Center report is outdated because things are happening consistently.

“You need to understand that there are legislators around this country who, unlike all of us in this room, are not necessarily as concerned about protecting democracy. Because I’m going to tell you all of us who are here on a day as today, our organizations are all non-partisan organizations. We don’t care if you’re blue, black, purple, yellow or red. What we’re concerned about is that all Americans have their right to vote protected. That is the message.

“So don’t allow folks to try to pigeon-hole this and turn this into a black issue. This is an American issue. This is a democracy issue…

“…Some people are saying this is about voter fraud. We did a report that said voter fraud is really a diminutive issue in this country. It’s not a real issue. This argument that is about voter fraud is really a solution in search of a problem.”



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