The National Urban League has been at the forefront of the fight for voting rights for decades. At the national and state level, we and our network of 90 affiliates in the Urban League Movement have advocated for access to the ballot, condemned efforts at voter suppression and fought for our rights in the courts and in the streets.
My predecessor, Whitney M. Young, stood proudly with the other Big Six civil rights leaders beside President Lyndon Johnson as he signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Our rights are more threatened than at any time since that moment. That’s why the Urban League Movement is engaged in a voter education and civic participation campaign, called “Enough is Enough. VOTE!”
I could quote statistics showing how voter registration and voter participation rates rose steadily from the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 until 2013, when the Supreme Court gutted the Act with its decision in Shelby v. Holder. That is generally how we measure the success of the act.
But to quote Rep. John Lewis, who very nearly lost his life in the battle for the Voting Rights Act, “increasing the voter rolls was not the central purpose of the legislation. It was intended to stop state-sponsored terrorism, intimidation, and unjust, humiliating practices — literacy tests, poll taxes, and even lynching — which led people of color to fear registering and voting on Election Day.”
It is no coincidence, and no accident, that the push to dismantle voting rights intensified after the election of 2008 — the first time in United States history when the Black voting rate equaled the White rate.
That’s exactly when Georgia, for example, tried to enact its controversial exact-match policy, which allows the state to reject voter registrations if so much as a hyphen is out of place. Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, however, the policy was rejected.
Despite the Justice Department’s determination that “flawed system frequently subjects a disproportionate number of African-American, Asian, and/or Hispanic voters to … erroneous burdens on the right to register to vote,” Georgia is now on its third attempt to enact “exact match” and is being sued for the second time.
In 2018, voters in at least eight states will face more stringent voting laws than they did in the last federal election. Overall, voters in 23 states will face tougher restrictions than they did in 2010. Tens of thousands of registered voters were deterred from voting by these racially discriminatory voter-suppression tactics.
In “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Michelle Alexander wrote, “The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told.”
So it is with voter suppression laws. They purport to target people who supposedly can’t be bothered to acquire photo identification, or who supposedly misspell their own names — never mind that it is overwhelmingly voters of color who lack the documentation to acquire required identification, or whose names are likely to be misspelled by overwhelmingly White county elections workers.
Poll taxes and literacy tests didn’t explicitly mention race, either. History will look no more kindly on the 21st-century Jim Crow.
Ultimately, these efforts to suppress voters of color are mere sandbags against the rising current of an increasingly racially diverse electorate. They may delay but never halt our progress toward equality. But only if we press on, continue to wage battles in the courts and in our communities, continue shining a light on discrimination and speaking truth to power.
Morial is president of the National Urban League.