One of the most popular post-election narratives remains that voter suppression efforts were soundly defeated. While the concept is essentially true, it says very little about how voting rights will fare in the near future—or how activists are continuing the work they began to preserve voting rights. Many voter ID measures, cut-offs to early voting and excessive voter purges were blocked or weakened at the state level in 2012, but lawmakers are aiming to propose new measures in 2013.
The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has announced that it will hear a challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 next year. That’s in addition to Arizona v. InterTribal Council of Arizona, which stems from a rule that demands voters demonstrate proof of citizenship when registering to vote. The two cases, which hinge on the Court’s interpretation of federal legislation that bars discrimination and its interpretation of what’s known as the Motor Voter Act, could make sweeping changes to the ways voting rights are—or are not—protected. Those stakes aren’t lost on community groups around the nation that hope to continue their voting rights work, even without the spotlight of a presidential election.
Last Friday morning, a coalition of community, faith-based and civic leaders gathered together at a local North Philly pizza joint that doubles as a breakfast diner. The group has been meeting together since early this year, when it became clear that lawmakers wanted to push through a controversial voter ID measure.
That law was temporarily halted before the general election, but the coalition is preparing to hold a major news conference this week, when it will announce how it’s going to fight to have a permanent injunction set against voter ID. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday to decide the dates for arguments.
Just as the group was working through breakfast, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter announced a six-person fact-finding team that will focus on the election process, including the confusion over the temporary injunction, which caused some poll workers to erroneously demand photo identification from voters despite the court ruling that the ID wasn’t necessary.
At breakfast, the coalition—which has yet to name itself—includes key members of national civil rights groups, black churches and a prominent city commissioner’s office. While they’ve all engaged together in previous years around election issues, it’s become clear that the push against voter suppression has a more permanent place in their work moving forward. As they sat around a group of small tables sipping coffee refills, there was a certainty that the communities they represent recognize the threat that Pennsylvania’s ID law created for voters. Robert Shine, who heads the Black Clergy of Philadelphia, says that November 6 proved that people want to be engaged.
“Not only were people angry,” explains Shine, “but people wanted to be a part of democracy’s process.”
And that’s true. For all the work that community groups, lawmakers and legal advocates did around voting rights, it was voters themselves who refused to be dissuaded from casting their ballots. The obstacle, it seems, is how to continue to engage voters now that the election is over.
“We need to put everyone on notice, it’s critical to keep voters engaged,” adds Paula Peebles, who chairs Pennsylvania’s Nation Action Network.