I chose to protect the vote rather than campaign for a candidate this year.
I was fortunate to be hired by NAACP LDF, an organization I deeply love, to do nonpartisan voter education as part of their Prepared to Vote campaign. And so I'm in Texas with the nation's greatest civil rights firm--one that has been in the thick of most significant civil rights cases through the decades.
Why protect the vote? Though voting is a right, not a privilege, the vote remains far from universal. One hundred years ago, I would not have had the right to vote. Just over fifty years ago, my African-American brothers and sisters effectively did not have the right to vote. In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, re-authorizing it most recently in 2006 by a commanding bipartisan majority. From its inception, the VRA immediately reduced racial discrimination in the franchise and has been one of the most powerful engines of democracy that our country has ever seen.
It worked...too well. Three years ago, the Supreme Court issued a decision called Shelby County v. Holder that gutted the Act. A key provision, Section 5, had required "covered" jurisdictions--those with a documented history of discrimination--to "preclear" new provisions that would impact citizens' ability to access the vote. Preclearance could be accomplished either in federal district court or by application to the Justice Department. But in this decision, the Court essentially said that success in accessing the franchise had rendered preclearance unnecessary and unconstitutional. The Court cited Congress' overwhelming support of the Act as evidence in favor of deactivating it. And so the Court struck down Section 5. Justice Ginsburg trenchantly observed that the court's choice was much like throwing away an umbrella in a rainstorm because you aren't getting wet.
Time has proven her right. Immediately after Shelby, several states passed restrictive laws impacting access to the vote that Section 5 no longer blocks. Another VRA provision, Section 2, enables parties to sue in court when discrimination occurs. But that means voters must first be harmed--and the road of litigation is incredibly long.
Meanwhile, citizens' rights are violated in sometimes shockingly clear ways. For example, in reviewing a North Carolina law, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found that "in what comes as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times, the State's very justification for a challenged statute hinges explicitly on race--specifically its concern that African Americans, who had overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, had too much access to the franchise." The opinion relied on record evidence that legislators had requested data on which groups most frequently used which forms of ID--then surgically targeted the law to impact poor people and people of color.
Court action halted this law, but only after years of litigation, an adverse district court decision, and an incredible expenditure of resources. It's not possible to meet every act of unjust infringement with this type of concerted action. And so the shadow of Shelby stretches long and dark over our claim to free and fair elections.
In Texas, LDF sued to block a highly discriminatory photo ID law in the case of Veasey v. Abbott. And they won in the Court of Appeals. But the victory was so recent that incorrect information--creating a standard that eliminates many eligible voters from casting their ballots--persists in many polling locations across the state. LDF is boots-on-the-ground working to remedy that, and so I'm here in Dallas.
But for me, the work here runs yet deeper than that. I'll be working in precincts with large populations of African-American voters. I came here so that my presence could say to these voters, my fellow citizens: your vote, your thoughts, and your presence are critically important to the country we share. I'm here to support you, in any way I can, as you exercise your birthright: the vote.
We can't ever forget that people marched, fought, and died for the right to vote. Together with the peaceful transition of power, free and fair elections are what enable our often-fragile democracy to survive. Infringement of the right to vote is intolerable to me, especially when the rights being infringed belong to the people whose forebears paid for the VRA with their own blood.
It seems that inclusiveness is threatening and frightening to many in our country. It shouldn't be. The steady march of American history has traveled on consistently in that direction, sometimes in fits and starts, sometimes with one step forward, two back. But ever on, with a country made ever stronger by its broader shoulders. Those of us who strive for inclusiveness fear exclusion and persecution more than we fear over-inclusion. And I believe we are on the right side of history.
Miles to go before we sleep. But we'll get there.