Members of the U.S. House of Representatives held a forum on Monday to shine a light on recent regressive voting laws throughout the country.
Laura W. Murphy, director of ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, reminded the panel that for decades, African-Americans who wanted to exercise their right to vote were beaten, chased by dogs, bludgeoned by police, and sometimes killed. Congress’ historic role in passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 stopped this type of violence and mistreatment, but still, the threat to our fundamental right to vote lives on today and the need for congressional action remains.
The 2011 legislative season saw regressive measures introduced in more than 30 states, and 16 states advanced measures that would create more barriers to voting. These laws come in several different forms — either requiring citizens to present photo identification or proof of citizenship in order to vote, making it more difficult to register or conduct registration drives prior to elections, reducing the opportunity for early voting, or disfranchising more citizens with past criminal convictions—but all of them have the same effect: to restrict access to the ballot for more and more Americans.
She testified that Congress must take action once again to stop this threat to our constitutional values. Murphy called on Members of Congress to urge the Department of Justice (DOJ) to vigorously enforce federal laws including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, She also called on Congress to pass federal legislative reforms including the Democracy Restoration Act, which would restore federal voting rights to those whose political voices are denied due to a past criminal conviction, and stressed the importance of educating the public through additional town halls and briefings on voter suppression nationwide.
In addition to Laura Murphy, the diverse panel included a range of civil rights leaders, as well as individuals and organizations affected by new voter suppression laws. Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau, Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice and Barbara R. Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, all spoke to the devastating effect of these laws, and particularly their disproportionate impact on minorities, people with disabilities, seniors, students and the poor.
Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters, addressed the increased difficulty that her organization has encountered in registering voters in states like Florida that have passed restrictive registration laws. Matthew Segal, co-founder and president of OUR TIME, discussed the negative impact of voter ID and registration laws on voting access and participation among students and young people. Two elderly Tennessee citizens, Lee and Phyllis Campbell, recounted their difficulty in obtaining the free photo identification required to vote after their state passed a new voter ID law this year.
The forum was held by House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.), House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), House Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee Ranking Member Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Congressional Black Caucus Chair Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), House Administration Committee Ranking Member Robert Brady (D-Pa.), Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Rep. Bobby Scott (D- Va.), Rep. Steve Cohen (D- Tn.) and Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio).
Rep. Conyers emphasized the importance of protecting the voting franchise against such attacks by state legislatures, saying: “[e]nsuring that every veteran, every senior citizen, every student — whether born or naturalized — has the right to vote should not be a partisan issue, it should be a legal and moral imperative of both parties.”
Join the ACLU in telling Attorney General Holder that the Department of Justice must fully enforce the Voting Rights Act and protect every citizen’s right to vote.