LaTosha Brown spent three hours in line last month waiting to vote in Georgia’s primary. After finally casting her ballot, she delivered pizza and encouragement to others in Black-majority districts of Atlanta who faced even longer delays.
“Do you know how traumatic it is in 2020 to wait out there five, six hours to vote?” says Brown, co-founder of the activist group Black Voters Matter. She says when she visited polling stations that day in largely white Atlanta neighborhoodsshe saw voters in and out in minutes.
Brown has a specific message for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), who recently called reports of voter suppression “nonsense” while praising the late Georgia Democratic congressman and fierce voting rights advocate John Lewis as a “giant of American history.”
“McConnell should have come with me that night, because all I saw was evidence of attempts to suppress the Black vote,” she says. “You can praise John Lewis, but do you respect his values? Voting shouldn’t be a partisan issue, it’s a democracy issue.”
The life’s work of Lewis is in the spotlight as the nation barrels toward a presidential election amid both a reckoning on racial inequity and concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic could further impact voting integrity.
Conversations with a range of voting rights activists and scholars suggest that the foundational core of American democratic values — the expression of individual freedom through the ballot box — is at an unprecedented crossroads.
While the efforts to raise awareness of systemic racial inequality have been boosted by the Black Lives Matter social justice movement after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minnesota police in May, challenges to voting remain significant.
Some states, largely in the South, have taken advantage of a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that weakened the 1965 Voting Rights Act to forge ahead with voting changes that negatively impact Black, Latino and Native American voters, groups that are most affected by polling station closures and burdensome voter registration rules.
Fueling the tension is President Donald Trump’s declaration that mail-in voting would lead to a “rigged” election, instead of it being seen as a safe alternative given virus-driven social distancing mandates. In a rebuttal, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) issued a statement saying that in her home state mail-in voting has been used for 60 years with “no evidence of widespread voter fraud.”
Trump also recently said in an interview that he might not accept the results of the Nov. 3 count. “I’ll keep you in suspense,” Trump told Fox News interviewer Chris Wallace.
For many of the Lewis’ friends and peers, the time is right to secure voting rights for all in the name of a man who, as a 21-year-old activist in 1961, was beaten and arrested for standing up to racism. Lewis passed away after a cancer battle on July 17 and will lie in state at the Capitol Rotunda on Monday and Tuesday. His funeral will be held Thursday in Atlanta.
After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which saw millions of Black Americans register to vote, Lewis took it upon himself once elected to Congress in 1986 to make sure the law and its various provisions were reinstated by a vote each year.
“John was like a proud parent, one who knew that without vigilance the Voting Rights Act would get undermined,” says Barbara Arnwine, a close friend of Lewis and founder of the Transformative Justice Coalition, which works to promote racial justice. “I’m extremely disturbed and concerned. Many states seem to want to exploit the pandemic to engage in voter suppression that will mostly hurt the poor and people of color.”
Voting rights are in a “perilous place right now because the pandemic is making it difficult and the protections against voter suppression are weaker than ever,” says Ari Berman, author of “Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.”
That’s due in large part to the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, in which the court ruled 5 to 4 that states no longer had to comply with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required some states with a history of discriminatory voting laws to obtain federal “preclearance” before enacting changes to voting laws or practices.
Justice Clarence Thomas, who sided with the majority, declared that the blatant discrimination against certain voters that Section 5 was meant to counter no longer exists.
“The Republican party has essentially said the Voting Rights Act as it was originally written is now outdated,” says Berman. “So there’s no sense of urgency to restore it as that is perceived as possibly hurting them politically.”
Lewis’ name now graces voting act
Democrats have been pushing back against that Supreme Court decision ever since, but without success given the Republican hold on the House and Senate in recent years.
In their continued effort to bring back Section 5’s preclearance requirements, House Democrats in late 2019 passed the Voting Rights Advancement Act. On Wednesday, the bill was reintroduced in the Senate by 47 Democrats and one Republican, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, and was renamed after Lewis.
Many activists say that while they’re prepared to continue to fight voter suppression by filing state-focused lawsuits, only a fully restored Voting Rights Act has the best chance of slowing efforts made by some states to encumber voting.
“It’s just hard keeping up through a case-by-case litigation strategy,” says Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a group founded by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 that enlists private lawyers for civil rights work.
Clarke’s group successfully sued Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and got thousands of names restored to voter rolls after the state issued rules saying that names on various voter documents had to match exactly. That demand worked against Black voters, whose name spellingsmight differ from what many white Americans may consider the cultural norm, she says.
“We’ve had small successes we are proud of, but none of it is a substitute for the protection of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act,” says Clarke.
McConnell so far has resisted bringing the newly renamed John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act up for a vote. That stance stands in sharp contrast to decades of bipartisan reaffirmations of the Voting Rights Act, says Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, a non-partisan think tank.
“This used to be something that traditionally there was strong support on both sides of the aisle for reauthorizing year after year,” says Weiser, who hopes that the nation’s current focus on inequality will pressure Congress to finally act. “It’s harder these days to stand against equality and voting rights.”
In a recent survey, the Brennan Centershowcased ways in which voting has been made more difficult in recent years for some Americans. For example, many states now require a photo ID to vote, but 25% of voting-age Black citizens do not have such identification as compared to 8% of white votersin the same position.
And in Texas, handgun license holders are cleared to vote but not those with a student ID from a state university. More than 80% of Texas handgun licenses went to white people in 2018, and more than half the students in the University of Texas system are people of color,the Brennan Center revealed.
Such findings don’t surprise Cliff Albright. The Georgia activist, who co-founded Black Voters Matter with Brown, says that while the Senate holds up the vote on a restored Voting Rights Act, the stage is being set for a chaotic and disruptive presidential election.
“The biggest issue is we have an election in the middle of a health crisis and we haven’t put adequate resources into dealing with that,” says Albright, noting that lawmakers still haven’t opted to provide funds for voting security in the next coronavirus relief package. “From where I stand, it’s almost like we’re fighting similar issues that John Lewis and his friends fought.”
Among Albright’s top worries are voting machines that are hackable, a lack of polling stations that disfavor the working poor, and a vote-by-mail option that lacks clarity. He also is worried that a sudden appearance of federal police at polling stations could deter voters of color.
“Many I speak with are concerned that what we’re seeing in Portland is a test run for what we might see on election day,” says Albright, referring to Trump’s dispatching of federal officers to the Oregon city, some of whom who have been accused of beating protesters. “Will we see so-called federal agents at polling places under the guise of protecting the vote? That’s intimidation.”
Nationwide protests fuels optimism
If there is a cause for optimism among voting rights workers, it can be found in the determination and resilience of recent primary voters who would not leave polling stations until their vote was counted, says Lecia Brooks, chief of staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Montgomery, Alabama-based non-profit that monitors hate groups and civil rights abuses across the country.
“When people recognize there’s an effort to keep them from voting, that’s motivating,” says Brooks. “There’s a lot to navigate, but groups like ours and others hope to provide a road map.”
The Center has launched a project called Vote Your Voice, a $30 million initiative that funds voter outreach groups in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana, states that have enacted restrictive voting measures. Other voter-focused efforts are quickly gathering momentum.
Color of Change, a national racial justice group, plans to use its platform to keep voters updated on registration guidelines as well as to counter Internet-spread disinformation. Founder Rashad Robinson says Lewis’ legacy hangs in the balance.
“You have to be optimistic to do social justice work, so we’re staying focused on making sure there’s a path toward victory in the fall,” he says.
NBA star LeBron James recently announced the launch of More Than A Vote, an initiative that aims to leverage the powerful social media presence of sports and entertainment celebrities to keep voters informed as Election Day nears.
“Their aim is to serve as trusted voices to counter misinformation, educating voters with the help of experts on their rights and how to vote in a pandemic,” says Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s secretary of state and an advisor to More Than A Vote. “John Lewis inspired me to do what I do. Everyone’s trying to pick up that torch and move forward.”
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights coalition with 200 groups under its umbrella, is mobilizing its forces to help voters, particularly those of color, to navigate the voting process.
The Leadership’s And Still I Vote initiative is a public information campaign focused on younger voters, while All Voting Is Local leverages staff in eight states to re-register voters purged from rolls, recruit poll station workers and expand early voting options.
Vanita Gupta, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, says Lewis is a touchstone and a guide for the work underway.
“We can mourn Congressman Lewis’ passing, but he was always a man of action and he would want the efforts to continue,” says Gupta, former head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. “Right now, there is enormous hunger for change.”
Brown, the Georgia activist, says she feels a kinship to Lewis as she fights to ensure everyone has the right to vote. She plans to spend the coming three months in the voting rights trenches.
“I feel sometimes like history is now repeating itself, because when I look at photos from Alabama in John’s time, the long lines on election days, the only thing different is the photos are now in color,” says Brown.
She is hopeful that the nation’s fierce focus on matters of race and justice will create a redoubled effort to make sure democracy is in action come November. For Black Americans, this moment means everything, she says.
“If we get out there and vote, no matter what the odds against us, it is because Black people believe in democracy and we have a true commitment to the process,” says Brown. “I have to believe that our dedication to the vote will prove greater than the opposition’s desire to suppress our vote.”
Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava