by Anitra D. Brown

The National Urban League released its annual State of Black America report in early May. With a sharp focus on voting rights, the 2019 report looks at the state of the Black vote with an emphasis on its power, its vulnerability to suppression and how to combat it.

Titled Getting 2 Equal: United Not Divided, the report features essays written by political, business, social, and civic leaders from across the nation, including Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change; La June Montgomery Tabron, president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation; and Congress members Nancy Pelosi, Karen Bass and William Lacy Clay.

New Orleanians are also featured prominently among the essayists with pollster and Xavier University sociology professor Silas Lee and New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell contributing to the report.

NUL CEO and President Marc Morial appeared on Rev. Al Sharpton’s MSNBC show Politics Nations several days before the official release of the report, laying out what he called the “terrible trio of voter suppression” highlighted in the report.

“First, the Supreme Court and its anti-democratic decisions in Shelby and Husted and Citizens United. Number two, state legislatures across America—40 plus that have engaged in outright efforts to make it more difficult for people, particularly people of color, to vote by eliminating early voting by creating voter ID requirements by putting clamps on those that want to register people to vote, like, the National Action Network, the NAACP or the League of Women Voters,” Morial says. “And then number three. And this is most compelling. It’s the Russian Federation, and it’s Internet research agency. The foreign interference was designed to inject racial division in the United States of America. Some of the posts and some of the diabolical means used by the Russians to suppress the African American vote–they created fake personalities, wearing if you will a Black Lives Matter mask. They ran an advertising campaign directed at average African Americans, indicating to them that African Americans could vote from home by texting.” 

The report was officially released on May 6 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, where Morial spoke emphatically about the role of Russian hackers in the 2016 election and the Black vote.

“Some of our leaders want to close the books on the Mueller Report. But the light must be cast on how Russia contributed to the suppression of the African-American vote,” he said.

According to the NUL 2019 State of Black America report, there were about 109 Twitter accounts masquerading as new organizations; Russia’s Internet Research Agency reached 20 million users on Instagram; and there were more than 76.5 million Facebook engagements.

“It was an orchestrated diabolical and sinister campaign,” Morial says. “The evidence is significant. The evidence is overwhelming and the evidence is clear. And I think we’ve got to expose it because it remains a clear and present threat to our election in 2020.”

Morial offered more insight into voter suppression issues in his letter appearing in the forward of the executive summary.

“According to some estimates, the Black voting rate matched or exceeded the white rate for the first time in American history in 2008, the first time a major party Black presidential candidate was on the ballot. Not coincidentally, a wave of racially-motivated voter suppression legislation swept the nation the year of the next federal election in 2010,” he writes. “According to the Brennan Center, our partners in this report, state lawmakers in 2010 began introducing hundreds of voter suppression measures.”

The report provides maps that lay out just where across the nation voting rights have been or are in the process of being expanded or restricted. 

From 2011 to 2018, 23 states have passed laws with additional restrictions on voting. And as of March 2019, the report notes that there were more than a dozen and half states, including California, Texas, Arizona, Mississippi and Tennessee, with bills that had either recently passed the state’s lawmaking bodies or were moving through those legislatures that restrict access to voting. 

“The right of African Americans to vote—our right to participate in the civic processes of this nation—quite simply is under attack.”

The report also touches on the impact of the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FCC in 2010, Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, and in Shelby v. Holder, which gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that required federal approval for states with a history of discrimination to make any changes to voting laws. 

“Shelby was just one of several blows against democracy the Supreme Court has struck in recent years,” Morial writes in the executive summary. “When it struck down campaign finance reform laws in Citizens United v. FCC in 2010, it unleashed the power of these super PACs, where wealthy individuals could pour unlimited money into the American political process. And most recently, in Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Court upheld the right of states to use aggressive purges to remove voters from registration rolls, a process that disproportionately affects communities of color.”

The report is not all doom and gloom, however. 

It points out that challenges are taking place against restrictive voting laws and practices that across the nation in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin, indicating that citizens are fighting back.

It also notes that there are many states in which bills to expand voting rights have been enacted.

Between 2013-2018, more than 20 states, including  Nevada, New Mexico, Georgia, Alaska, Hawaii, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont and New York, have passed bills that expanded voting rights. And as of March 2019, voting expansion bills were introduced or carried over state legislatures in some nine states. 

“These attacks on our rights have not gone unchallenged,” Morial writes in his missive as NUL’s leader. “A sweeping reform bill, H.R. 1, was the first legislation introduced in the 116th Congress. Among its provisions: creation of a new national automatic voter registration that asks voters to opt out, rather than opt in; promotion of early voting, same-day voter registration, and on-line voter registration; making Election Day a holiday; ending partisan gerrymandering in federal elections and prohibiting voter roll purging. H.R. 4, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, essentially would restore the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act, creating a new coverage formula to determine which states and localities with repeated voting rights violations must preclear election changes with the Department of Justice.”

He continues: “In the courts, at least 15 states have ongoing litigation against voter suppression laws. Six cases are pending in Georgia alone, five of them related to the most recent election cycle. Organizations like the NAACP, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Advancement Project, ACLU, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, the League of Women Voters, and Common Cause are fighting back; and we are proud to stand with them.”

Offering Solutions

Divided into five sections, the report examines voting issues in Black America in the following areas: voter engagement, a look forward to 2020, first-time voters, voter suppression and solutions for safeguarding voting rights and fighting suppression.

To that end, the report offers clear policy recommendations that include:

• Eliminate strict, discriminatory voter I.D. requirements;

• Allow automatic voter registration, on-line registration and same-day registration;

• Restore voting rights to citizens convicted of felonies as soon as their sentences are completed;

• Require paper verification of ballots in federal elections to prevent computer tampering;

• When necessary, conduct post-election audits to compare paper records to computerized results; 

• Enact the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which restores the full enforcement protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965; 

• Eliminate voter roll purging based on failure to vote or failure to respond to mailed documents; 

• Prohibit distribution of false information intended to dissuade people from voting; 

• Grant statehood for the District of Columbia, giving residents in the nation’s capital full voting rights 

• Create a national commission to identify and eliminate foreign interference in the American democratic process; 

• Move the U.S. toward the popular election of presidents through states’ participation in the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, with the goal of eliminating the Electoral College.

To access the report, visit www.stateofblackamerican.org.

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