S04 E06: We Must Keep Fighting Barriers to the Ballot
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Vanessa: Welcome to “Pod for the Cause,” the official podcast of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Leadership Conference Education Fund, where we expand the conversation on the critical civil and human rights issues of our day. I’m your Host, Vanessa Goznalez, coming to you from beautiful, spring is blooming and so are allergies, Washington D.C. And like we start off every show, we’ve got the Pod Squad. Give it up for yourselves, Pod Squad. These are the folks to know and they will be discussing pop culture, social justice, and everything in between. So, we’ve got some amazing folks today on the Pod Squad. First up, we have Bo Shuff, Executive Director at D.C. vote.
Bo: Hello. It’s good to be here. Thanks.
Vanessa: You’re going to make it happen for us this year, Bo.
Vanessa: I can feel it.
Bo: Yes. Maybe early next year, but yes.
Vanessa: Next up we have Lisa Cylar Barrett, Director of Policy at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Hi, Lisa.
Lisa: Hey, Vanessa. It’s so good to be here. Thanks so much for hosting us today.
Vanessa: Absolutely. LDF are great friends and family for The Leadership Conference. So thank you so much for being here. And then we have Kadeem Cooper, who is Policy Counsel at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Hey, Kadeem.
Kadeem: Hi, thanks for having me.
Vanessa: Today, we’re going to be talking about voting and bills that increase barriers to the ballot, that we’ve seen popping up across the country, as well as some proposed federal fixes. So before we jump in, I just want to set the stage with some quick stats. Early voting in 2020 doubled the rate of early voting in 2016, driving the election to be highest turnout in more than 100 years. And believe me, a lot of people worked for that. Black voter turnout in 2020 was up 21% from 2016. And Latino voter turnout was up 30.9% in 2020 from 2016. In response to record turnout from communities of color, lawmakers in 47 states have introduced 361 bills to further restrict voting. Leading that charge is Georgia. The Georgia governor recently signed into law a horrible bill that would ban government agencies from sending ballot applications to voters, would force voters to submit a copy of their voter ID or driver’s license. And it would look to limit ballot drop box availability, making them only accessible inside early voting locations and during early voting hours.
And all of this happened while a black representative was knocking on the door of the governor’s office asking to discuss the bills. She was arrested. She’s now been released. But that just shows you the lengths that folks will go to. In Arizona lawmakers are pushing 40-plus bills designed to steal control from voters, and these bills would eliminate or restrict voting by mail, gut the grassroots ballot initiative process, criminalize protests, and give the state legislature the power to silence the voices of the voters. And D.C., our D.C., the D.C. statehood fight continues. Even though D.C. residents pay federal taxes, fight courageously in wars, and fulfill all of the other obligations of citizenship, they still have no voice when Congress makes decisions on matters as important as war and peace, taxes and spending, health care, education, immigration policy, and the environment. And all of this, despite D.C. having a population of over 700,000 people, which is larger than Wyoming and Vermont.
So I’m excited to jump into today’s conversation with these amazing folks, who have dedicated their lives to voting and making sure that everybody has access to the polls. So let’s get into it. And I’m going to go to Lisa first and start with the For the People Act, known as H.R. 1 and S. 1. This election showed us that when access to voting is expanded, people actually show up. Like, they make a whole thing out of it, even in the middle of a pandemic. So, the For The People Act is written to protect and expand access to voting by establishing automatic voter registration, same day registration, creating a 15-day minimum early voting period, which would be phenomenal, stopping voter purges, which removed tens of thousands of people last election, and restoring the right to vote for people with felony convictions. So, can you tell us a little bit more about this bill? And really, what S. 1 would mean for voters?
Lisa: I mean, I think you’re absolutely right, S. 1 or H.R. 1 would mean expanding access to the fundamental right to vote for people in this country. And you’re absolutely right to note sort of this election that we just came through. It was a historic election. We saw tremendous turnout. It was an election that occurred in the midst of a pandemic. And yet still people stood in long lines, and masked up, and really did everything they could to exercise this fundamental right. And so that lets you know how critical this right is to folks. We really should be making it as easy as possible for folks to vote. We should be making it as easy as possible for folks to register. And that’s what this bill is really focused on.
I also just want to just back up for a minute or maybe go up a few feet and talk about the election, because many of the news stories about the election really painted this picture of the election running smoothly. And we know the reality is that voter suppression in this election was rampant. LDF and many of our partner organizations, including The Lawyers’ Committee, so Kadeem’s organization, but a number of organizations were extremely busy. The Leadership Conference throughout 2020, bringing sort of every tool, and capacity, and resource to bear to combat voter registration. And I was on a panel recently with Cliff Albright from Black Voters Matter. And he described it as, it’s not that there wasn’t voter suppression, it’s that the community beat voter suppression, or outworked voter suppression, or something like that. And I think that’s absolutely right, and a perfect description of what we’ve just experienced.
You know, we saw intimidation at the polls with armed supporters for President Trump, and the display of Confederate flags. And we know the history of what that means in this country. And so we saw that at voting site locations, right? In Florida, in North Carolina, and Louisiana. We saw extremely long lines. We saw endless obstacles put in place to folks that were trying to vote by mail. Again, we were voting in the midst of a pandemic, and folks were trying to preclude people from voting by mail, or using that as a resource, or from registering online. And those are all things that would be addressed by S. 1. So had this legislation been in place as we were voting in the midst of this pandemic, it would have been much easier for people to exercise this really critical right to vote. You know, the 15 days of early voting, which is something that was also really critical for voting in this last election. So, it is a really important piece of legislation that will really help advance the access to this fundamental right in this country.
Vanessa: Yeah. Thank you so much for that, Lisa. And thanks for taking us up a couple of levels. Because you’re 100% right, there are problems with the elections across the board. Communities came together and they overcame those things, because we know how important it is. That being said, we should not have to continuously overcome things to be able to exercise our right to vote. So, Kadeem, can you speak to this idea of, how are we supposed to look at supporting bills, like the For the People Act, when in states across the country, they’re actually trying to codify making it harder? You know, I think everybody hears about Georgia and saying, now you can’t even bring water. However, the governor said, but you can order Uber Eats. And I think if you are in line to vote long enough, that Uber Eats comes to you, that’s problematic. But Kadeem, can you talk to us a little bit about how those narratives are playing out and what you’re seeing at Lawyers’ Committee?
Kadeem: So I think the way I like to think about S. 1/H.R. 1, the For the People Act is, it would create a national baseline for voting. So, it’d basically create a standard that no matter what state legislators are trying to do, all voters would have access to the standard. So we just talked about early voting, mandating that 15 days of early voting across the country. So when you see state legislators now trying to roll back early voting, they wouldn’t be able to overcome the federal law. The federal law would preempt it. The dynamic that we have right now is, we have some states like Georgia, Arizona, Texas, going in the wrong direction, rolling back voter accessibility provisions that have been in place. And we have states like Michigan that are actually going in the right direction and making it easier to vote. So what we’re starting to see is actually a dichotomy between two different systems. There’s one system where people can vote pretty easily. And then there’s another system, mostly in the south, where voters have a lot of difficulty voting. And so what I think For the People Act does, is it crushes those two systems and makes it one national system. And that’s what I think voters deserve. It shouldn’t matter where you live, how your right to vote is exercised.
Vanessa: Thank you so much for that. That’s a really beautiful way, I think, to talk about what the goal is of that. I have not had that articulated to me quite that way, and I’m going to steal it now and use it, when I talk about S. 1. We have another big bill coming up as well named in honor of the amazing civil rights fighter, legend, Mr. John Lewis. We have The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, also known H.R. 4. Lisa, some people have started to combine these two bills together, because we keep talking about them as a package. But can you tell me, how are these different? And why are two bills needed separately?
Lisa: First, I want to say just so much respect and honor for all the work of John Lewis, and so happy to see him honored in this way. I do want to say that the bill, when we say The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, or H.R. 4, that was really a bill that was introduced the last Congress, but has not yet been introduced this Congress. But what we’re doing is using that as shorthand to really reference legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was severely weakened by the Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013. The Voting Rights Act really looks at how you protect against states and localities, erecting barriers to prevent black people and people of color from exercising their right to vote as guaranteed under the 15th amendment. So, at the time that the Voting Rights Advancement Act was enacted, it banned things like literacy tests in the grandfather clause, which were being used to prevent black people from voting. But it also provided for federal oversight, or what we call preclearance, to protect against state voter suppression laws that have a negative effect on voting access for racial minorities.
And so, with the VRA in place, if states are subjected to those preclearance requirements, then let’s say Georgia was a state that was covered by the preclearance requirement, they would actually have to go through an evaluation with the Department of Justice of what they’re proposing to do before the law can be enacted. So that if it was found that that law was going to have a suppressive effect on the vote for minorities, you wouldn’t be able to enact that law. The beauty of preclearance is that it happens before an election, so that people are not denied their right before an election happens.
Vanessa: Okay, so it’s kind of like a backstop to the shenanigans.
Lisa: It absolutely, and stops the craziness, so to speak, before a person is actually denied their right to participate in an election. And that’s really critical. There are ways, you know, certainly, we’re illegal organization, we bring lawsuits all the time. But bringing the lawsuit after an election really, in some ways, rectifies the situation. But at that point, you’ve already lost your opportunity to participate in an election. And that can mean the difference between who’s representing you in the state legislature, who’s elected to the courts in your state, you know, a whole host of things, what bonds are approved in your area for education for your children. It really can have a tremendous impact. And I love what Kadeem said about, there really should not be a difference in access to voting based on where you live. Unfortunately, we are seeing that in this country, and we’ve got to do everything we can to fight against it. So, H.R. 4 or the restoration of the Voting Rights Advancement Act, or the Voting Rights Act, would really help address these issues of voter suppression and really try to keep them from happening on the front end. And H.R. 1 or S. 1 would really expand access to voting in terms of automatic voter registration, allowing for early voting, ensuring that people can vote by mail, all of those things. And so we need both. We absolutely need both.
Vanessa: That was really helpful. Thank you so much for that. I think it’s helpful to think about, S. 1, like you said, is expansion. And as Kadeem laid out, right, it’s to stop these two worlds of voting, these two systems of voting. Unfortunately, in America, we know the access to several basic infrastructures really are determined by where you live, right? Health care, education, you name it. So let’s put voting in those buckets. We need to stop that now. We fight so hard to prevent two types of healthcare, and education systems, and you name it. So let’s continue the fight for voting. And speaking of voters being disenfranchised, let’s talk about what’s going on with D.C. statehood.
Bo: Sure, appreciate that. And I want to sort of tie back to what Lisa and Kadeem were talking about with this idea of equal representation no matter where you live, right? It’s a very simple concept, or supposedly a very simple concept, that no matter your zip code, you should have equal representation in our government. And that starts with the processes that elect our elected officials. And it has to follow through to the fact that everybody is represented at some level. And here in the district, we’re not, as you mentioned. We have no vote in the House. We have a delegate with no vote. And we have no Senate voice or vote at all. The fight is moving forward faster and more strongly than ever before in history. Last June, we set a high watermark with the passage of H.R. 51, The D.C. Admissions Act, through the House of Representatives, for literally the first time in more than 200 years. This week is becoming crunch time, next week, I guess, technically, a markup in the Oversight Committee where amendments or other things might be offered.
And then we expect it to head to the floor the following week. Leader Hoyer has said that the bill will hit the floor the week of the 19th of April. So we expect passage on the bill again. And then it’s a full on pivot and focus on the Senate work, where we have a lot of work to do still. Supportive caucus, but not a majority in support yet. So we know that we’ve got work to do over there, to tie it, again, back to these concepts. That it’s great to have systems that allow everyone to participate, unless you’re structurally locked out of the system as it stands. So we’re excited about where we are, but we know we’ve got a lot more to do.
Vanessa: So, Bo, can you just break it down for us? Because I think some people are genuinely confused about the two sides of this coin. Number one, why it’s so important for statehood to finally be granted to residents of our nation’s capital. And number two, what are the main barriers preventing it from being so.
Bo: The argument for D.C. statehood is very simple and very clear. And we’ve been making it though, however, for more than 200 years. I always say, we fought a war about the concept of taxation without representation. And based on all of the American history books that I learned in elementary school, we won that war. Yet here in the District of Columbia, we still live under that system where we have no voice, and yet not only pay taxes, we pay more taxes collectively as Washingtonians than 22 other states. So we are right in the mix with everybody else. And importantly, we pay more into the federal government than the federal government pays for Washington, D.C. services, and etc. So we are what’s called a net contributor to the federal budget, which is not true of, I believe, 44 states. We play our part.
It’s more than that, though. It’s more than just the concept of representation. It is also the interference that is allowed by Congress or even empowered by Congress. It is a living and breathing, walking example of white supremacy that we live in a district that has a majority black and brown, and is dominated and ruled by a body that is a majority white, in which we have no say. I mean, it is just literally a very clear example of white supremacy and that needs to end. On a day to day basis, Congress messes with our laws all the time. We saw it in the last year, even with being shorted in the first Coronavirus Relief Act, the CARES Act, $775 million, because Congress decided to treat us like a territory instead of a state. We see it every day in the fact that D.C. residents, like 16 other states, have voted to legalize marijuana. Even across the river just this week in Virginia, you had Andy Harris, a congressman from Maryland that none of us voted for, put in a budget writer to prevent us from implementing that. So we can’t tax and regulate it. We end up with a Wild, Wild West sort of scenario on marijuana here in D.C., and it keeps it unsafe. And it prevents us from getting revenue, which is important for the district.
And those have been going on for hundreds of years, needle exchange, blocking domestic partner benefits, even messing with how we define wet wipes, to just get into every single little piece of it. So it’s sort of two sides of the coin, like you said. It is the interference and it’s also the representation.
Vanessa: Stop messing with us. You don’t live here. You have a full state, you have a whole district that you’re supposed to be focusing on. Those people voted for you. Go focus on those issues at home. Leave us alone.
Bo: Representative Nancy Mace, who’s from South Carolina, she’s brand new to the Congress. She’s a first term member. Her first bill out of the gate, first bill, had nothing to do with anybody in South Carolina, any of her constituents, it told D.C. that the way we qualify early education providers had to change. That we weren’t allowed to have educational requirements for early education providers. We decided, as a district, that the folks who teach our youngest kids should have some level of college, some level of knowledge on how to do that education work. Nancy Mace decided, no, it’s more important that I overturn that than worry about benefits for anybody in South Carolina. I mean, it’s just crazy.
Vanessa: It’s just ridiculous. So if you are listening to this, if you are not a D.C. resident and your elected official’s messing with the livelihood of a whole other population of folks that they were not elected by, please make a call and tell them to leave us alone, to focus on the state, the district that they were elected to represent. Thank you so much for that, Bo. And thank you so much for your continuous fight. And I want to really lift up one of the threads that you just brought up. This is a racial justice issue. This is steeped in anti-blackness. This is steeped in holding the black community back. And we can’t deny that. All of this, all of this, refusing statehood for D.C., these new croppings of anti-voter laws, right? This is all very methodically thought out, folks are scared. And what we have to do is really band together and be true allies to the black community and make sure we say, “Nope, we’re not going to do this again. We’re not going to allow you to do this.” So, thank you so much for lifting that thread. It really does go through all of these barriers to the ballot that we’re seeing passed through as laws.
Lisa: Yeah, Vanessa, I just want to jump in there. I think it’s so critical that folks realize, this is not just an issue that folks who live in D.C. should be concerned about. Everyone should be concerned about what’s happening in terms of the denial of statehood to D.C. As you said, this is an affront and part of a larger picture in terms of denying rights to people and specifically people of color. And it is an affront to democracy and the ideals that this country is supposed to stand on. And so we should all be concerned. And just as we should be encouraging our representatives to focus on issues related to the things needed in our state, we should also be encouraging them to make sure that they vote in support of D.C. statehood.
Vanessa: Yes, excellent point.
Lisa: Because it is a concern for everyone.
Vanessa: I want to switch a little bit to maybe some bright light at the end of some of this dark tunnel conversation we’re having. So, on March 7th, the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, President Biden issued an executive order promoting voting access. And through this executive order, he called on Congress to pass H.R. 1, the For the People Act, and H.R. 4, The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. People really saw this as an important step forward to ensure that everybody can participate in the political process. I think it was important to hear the President, particularly after the election we just came out, say, everybody should have a right, access the right to vote. So under this EO, just a couple of points. It directs federal agencies to expand access to voter registration and election information, and improves and modernizes vote.gov. I don’t know the last time you all may have gone on that website. You probably go on that website all the time. But improves and modernizes vote.gov. It analyzes barriers to voting for people with disabilities.
This is a big gap that we have in information and really understanding the needs about how to make voting accessible. And it provides voting access and education to citizens in federal custody, as well as establishing a Native American Voting Rights Steering Group. These are big things. This is an acknowledgement of giant holes in the system. Now, some folks might say, we don’t need a study. We already know all these. But I just wanted to take a step back and say, but this is a big step forward. So, like, let’s embrace that. Let’s move that forward, right? We want to make sure we understand how to make voting accessible for everyone. Kadeem, is Biden’s executive order sufficient? And what else needs to be done on top of that?
Kadeem: So, the first thing I want to say is just, you know, to commend the White House for this executive order. I think it is, as you just said, a great step forward. And it really focuses on increasing voter registration and access, which I think are two very laudable goals. But I think what we need even more than this type of federal attention to registration access, is we need enforcement of the voting rights laws. Over the past four years, with President Trump and his Department of Justice, they actually were on the wrong side of the issue often. Oftentimes, organizations like The Lawyers’ Committee or Legal Defense Fund would find themselves facing the federal government in litigation because the federal government was defending states that had passed suppressive laws. So what we really need with Merrick Garland’s Department of Justice is, we need a renewed attention to enforcement of the voting rights laws.
Yes, section five is now defunct, which is why we need the Voting Rights Advancement Act. But we still have section two, which allows the Federal Department of Justice to bring lawsuits to prevent discriminatory laws. I’m confident that the Department of Justice under Merrick Garland, and with other leaders like Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clark, will be able to stand up for voting rights again. And really, the federal government really can be a partner again, in the fight for voting rights.
Vanessa: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for looping it into the Department of Justice nominees’ fight. That’s another reason why we’re seeing some of these talented, amazing women, women of color, being treated the way they are in some of these hearings. It’s pretty rough. And voting is one of the things they would help to oversee. And so I don’t think we can close our eyes and pretend that these things are not all connected in some form or fashion. What would you say to voters who have been activated, who got up, showed up, and participated in this last election, who are now looking out at all of these states and a pretty bleak landscape when it comes to voting? What is something that you would tell them to keep them engaged and activated? Bo, what would you say? Because you’ve had to really wage this fight through some dark waters.
Bo: I will be honest, it hasn’t always been my fight. But our organization and the folks in D.C. who have worked on statehood for a long time definitely know what it’s like to get beaten back a couple of times. Honestly, if anything, coming out of 2020, you’ve got to find optimism in the successes. I think one thing that we don’t do well is we don’t necessarily celebrate our wins. And that is what provides the energy. And that’s why I always mentioned June 26th, 2020, when I’m talking about D.C. statehood. We made history. And we need to continue to celebrate that, even though it didn’t pass, and even though we’re not a state, and even though I still have an old flag and not my new flag. We had a huge win, and we need to get ready for the next one. And we do that by celebrating our wins.
Vanessa: Ah, that’s an excellent point. We don’t celebrate our wins nearly enough. Lisa, what would you say?
Lisa: I’m going to build on Bo’s. I think we often don’t take the opportunity to celebrate our wins. And that’s, you know, partially because we’re in these fights, and we move to the next one without taking a moment to sort of breathe and celebrate. But I want to go back to where you started us, Vanessa, and that is, the election that we just had. I mean, it was a historic election. People showed up in ways that were just tremendous. And I can’t say that enough, given the obstacles that were put in front of people, given that we were in a pandemic, and have never really experienced having to vote in that circumstance. You know, I just reflect on John Lewis again, at Selma last year, and we were all sort of shocked to see him come out. And what he implored to us is that we have to vote like never before and to really stay in the fight.
And so I think part of it is remembering sort of the shoulders that we stand on, and that they never gave up. And as Bo said, you know, really taking the moment to celebrate the wins. Part of why we are seeing what we’re seeing in states across the country is because of what we were able to achieve in this 2020 election. And so, celebrate those wins and use that as fuel to keep fighting.
Vanessa: Yep, we did. We put in a lot of energy. So let’s take a pause and celebrate and then keep fighting. I appreciate that. And Kadeem, last word, what would you say to all those people?
Kadeem: I would say two things. The first thing, voter education beats voter suppression. And then the second thing I would say is, when we fight, we win. There are efforts by the state legislatures that are making it more difficult to vote. But what we’ve seen again and again, is that communities, no matter what the obstacles are in their way, will find their way to the ballot box. And that’s why you’re seeing record high African American turnout, record high Hispanic turnout, regardless of the fact that these state legislators are trying to hold us back. I think we just have to keep fighting and never give up.
Vanessa: That’s fantastic. Thank you so much for that. Remember, voter education beats voter suppression.
Vanessa: So, thank you so much. This has been a very uplifting, informative conversation. It’s been so great to have you all today as our guests. I want to give a warm thank you again to the incredible Lisa Cylar Barrett, Bo Shuff,and Kadeem Cooper, for joining us on “Pod for the Cause.” Thank you all so very much.
Lisa: Thank you to the incredible Vanessa Gonzalez.
Vanessa: Thank you so much.
Lisa: Thank you.
Thank you for listening to “Pod for the Cause,” the official podcast of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and The Leadership Conference Education Fund. For more information, please visit civilrights.org. And to connect with us, hit us up on Instagram and Twitter, @PodForTheCause. And you can text us. Text Civil Rights, that’s two words, Civil Rights, to 40649, to keep up with our latest updates. Be sure to subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast app and leave us a five star review. Until next time, I’m Vanessa Gonzalez. Thank you for listening to “Pod for the Cause.”