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.
Peebles, as well as the seven other people at the table, identify that moving forward means not only strategizing about how to help defend voting rights in court; it means making them relevant to voters outside of the election cycle.
Across town in Philly’s Center City, Ellen Mattleman Kaplan, acknowledges the same dilemma. Kaplan, who leads the Committee of Seventy election watchdog group, is a lot more frank about the reality that people’s attention to voting rights plummets after general elections. Her organization brought together the 150 or so groups that encompassed what came to be know as the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition to fight the law. But now, rather than emphasizing that the voter ID law shouldn’t have been passed to begin with, the Committee of Seventy is concentrating on educating voters about the kind of identification they will need to cast a ballot if the law stands—and how to obtain one.
“We’re operating on the assumption that voter ID will be in place for the May 2013 primary,” says Kaplan.
What might seem like disjointed post-election tactics centered on Philadelphia also presents a vast array of opportunities for activists to get involved. “We cannot rest on our laurels,” warns Lee Rowland, who works with the Brennan Center.
Like many national advocacy groups, the Brennan Center works with people who are looking to volunteer their time to protect voting rights. Rowland’s advice for how to get started is simple. “Just get involved,” she says.
That involvement can include attending local and state government hearings, reaching out to a local board of election, working with a local voting rights group or coalition, and helping craft messages that appeal to more young people.
The Advancement Project, meanwhile, also suggests a focus on the local. When the organization was founded in 1999, its approach was novel: do the work of advocacy and relationship building in the off-election years that simply can’t be done during busy election seasons. Managing Director Eddie Hailes says the group is already focused on the critical legal advocacy needed in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Virginia. But like the Brennan Center, it expects to see more proposals in the coming months that will threaten voting rights. Which is why Hailes urges local voting rights advocates to start engaging their election officials now.
“Sometimes we’ll know who the mayor is, who’s on the city council, and so forth, but not the official who oversees elections,” says Hailes. Hailes suggests local activists draw out what their local election officials are doing and what kinds of reforms they may be considering in 2013. Voter groups can even schedule meetings to get to know them. Developing a relationship with local elections officials means that by the time the next election comes around, a given activist will have a better idea of what to expect.
The coming year will present local, state, and national challenges to the way we understand voting rights. People who want to become involved in the fight against voter suppression already have plenty of options on where to start.
In the previous Voting Rights Watch post, Brentin Mock writes, “Voting Rights Icon Lawrence Guyot’s Death Animates a Fight Over the Future.”