clock menu more-arrow no yes

The fight for voting rights is personal for Rep. Terri Sewell

“Our history of voter suppression has come right back around.”

Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) speaks during a service recognizing voting rights movement foot soldiers at the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Alabama, in 2015.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Fighting for voting rights is in Rep. Terri Sewell’s blood.

Sewell is a House Democrat representing Alabama’s Seventh Congressional District, an area encompassing Selma and parts of Montgomery and Birmingham. In other words, it’s the birthplace of the voting rights movement in the 1960s, when Martin Luther King Jr., Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), and thousands of other black Americans marched from Selma to Montgomery for the right to vote.

“You can’t grow up in Selma and not be painfully aware of the sacrifices of foot soldiers and freedom fighters — ordinary Americans who literally stood up and fought against the inequities they saw when it came to voting rights,” Sewell said in a recent interview. “They did so at their own peril.”

Their collective action resulted in the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, protecting the right to vote in minority communities that were being discriminated against by individual states.

Now Sewell is afraid of history repeating itself across the United States, in the form of restrictive voter ID laws and gerrymandering districts to target minority voters and dilute the power of their vote. These bills and redistricting plans are often advanced by Republican state legislatures in the name of cracking down on voter fraud. Sewell has another name for them: modern-day voter suppression.

“While we no longer have to count how many jellybeans are in a jar or recite all the 67 counties of Alabama in order to be able to vote, we are seeing greater efforts putting restrictions on voting in the name of fraud, although it has not been proven overwhelmingly by any of the statistics or any of the reporting,” she said.

Sewell is reintroducing a bill called the Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bill that would restore key parts of the Voting Rights Act and essentially restore federal oversight on states that are trying to pass restrictive voting laws.

She wants to make it more difficult for states to discriminate against voters of color, and give the federal government a stronger ability to take action against states with a history of discrimination. Given the Republican-controlled Senate, her bill has little chance of becoming law next year. But it’s still an important statement Democrats want to make about protecting voting rights, and Sewell wants to prepare for a potential political power shift coming to Capitol Hill in 2020.

“I think that right now, we’ve got to capitalize on the groundswell of public opinion and public sentiment,” she said.

I recently spoke with Sewell about the history behind her bill and why it matters after the 2018 midterms. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Ella Nilsen

Why is this so relevant now after the 2018 elections?

Terri Sewell

I just don’t think the right to vote should be a partisan issue. A decade ago, Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in a nearly unanimous vote. That was in 2006; it was reauthorized by the Senate, 98-2. We’ve seen over the last 12 years, especially after the [Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court] decision, how voting rights have become very partisan.

We saw in the presidential election of 2016, with voting stations in previous jurisdictions that were covered under the Voting Rights Act, that the polling stations were closed or moved. We won’t have a problem coming up with modern-day testimony of the effects of actual restrictive laws on the American voters.

Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) right, arrives to speak during a service at the Zion United Methodist Church in Marion, Alabama, on Sunday, February 15, 2015,
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Ella Nilsen

It was recently announced that your bill would be taken out of the anti-corruption package that is HR 1 and introduced on its own. Can you explain why?

Terri Sewell

I think everybody realizes that the Voting Rights Advancement Act would need to withstand any legal challenges, so we need to build a record of the need for this particular bill, why restoring the Voting Rights Act is so important. That will require hearings, testimonies on the record.

As we are going forward with this, it’s going to take some months for us to build up the record. We thought in 2006 that the record — thousands of pages of transcripts of hearings — wasn’t enough for the Supreme Court. So we’re going to have to replicate and show modern-day voter discrimination that’s occurring in our states.

Here’s what I know for a fact: I know the voter suppression we saw in the 2018 elections makes it clear, now more than ever, the urgency to restore the Voting Rights Act. We saw in Georgia, the Republican candidate for governor used his power as secretary of state to put 53,000 voter registrations on hold — nearly 70 percent of which belonged to black voters. We also saw in North Carolina, 20 percent of the early voting locations were closed this year, and New Hampshire, Florida, Texas, and Wisconsin, and Alabama instate[d] higher hurdles to cast their ballot.

We just want to make sure that when we introduce [the act], we have the very best chance of being to withstand any legal challenge. But I think it’s not going to be hard to come up with a record of modern-day voter suppression. As you recall, the Shelby decision didn’t invalidate the Voting Rights Act; rather, it said it put the onus on Congress to come up with a modern-day formula for Section 4 that would make Section 5 enforceability viable. So that’s what my bill does.

We’ve gotten enormous amounts of traction given the state of play of voting rights in America today. It’s clear to me that states across this country have seen new laws since the Shelby decision that have made it harder for voters to vote, not easier. And in the face of such discrimination, the enforceability — it’s intentional discrimination against communities of color.

Ella Nilsen

Why do you think voting rights have become so partisan?

Terri Sewell

Well, clearly, when fewer people vote, Republicans and the GOP win. They’ve done so in the name of voter fraud, but there’s no evidence of pervasive voting fraud in America. The fact that Trump had to abolish his own commission [on voter fraud] ... his commission saying that 3 million Americans voted through fraud during his own election, that’s how he explained away the popular vote going to Hillary Clinton ... that’s just simply not true.

So, unfortunately, I think my GOP colleagues have seen an advantage given to them in their elections when fewer people vote when restrictive laws are imposed. Classic voter suppression, by the way.

Ella Nilsen

Given that you’re from Selma, and seeing how many of these laws have been passed in different states since the Supreme Court decision, it seems like this is a very personal issue for you and for your constituents.

Terri Sewell

I mean, you can’t grow up in Selma and not be painfully aware of the sacrifices of foot soldiers and freedom fighters, ordinary Americans who literally stood up and fought against the inequities they saw when it came to voting rights. They did so at their own peril.

It’s very personal for me, not only because I represent the civil rights district of America but because I’m a daughter of Selma. I grew up in Brown Chapel AME Church, where the marchers met and gathered before that march from Selma to Montgomery. I think we’ve seen modern-day forms of suppression: While we no longer have to count how many jellybeans are in a jar or recite all the 67 counties of Alabama in order to be able to vote, we are seeing greater efforts putting restrictions on voting in the name of fraud, although it has not been proven overwhelmingly by any of the statistics or any of the reporting.

If one person is denied access to the ballot box, it goes to the heart of the integrity of our entire election system. I know for me personally, hearing my elder constituents who were born at home by midwives now being asked by the state of Alabama — in order to get a “free voter ID” ... you have to produce or pay $30 or more for a birth certificate, and those who don’t have a birth certificate are having difficulty showing a birth certificate.

Then you have state laws like Georgia, where if your driver’s license doesn’t match exactly your voter registration, they’re kicking you out from voting! You got married, and some places you put a hyphen and other places you don’t put a hyphen. But if you can show that is still you — that address is still your address — the system shouldn’t kick you out.

We should not be making it harder to vote in America. We should be making it easier for voters to vote. Clearly, you see that our history of voter suppression has come right back around again. While we’re not in an era like we were in the ’50s and ’60s, the ’90s going forward — and especially recently — we’ve seen that restrictive voter laws have an effect on people’s ability to go to the polls and vote.

Sewell speaks during a service at the Zion United Methodist Church in Marion, Alabama, on Sunday, February 15, 2015, marking the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Ella Nilsen

Do you potentially see this going all the way up to the Supreme Court?

Terri Sewell

It could. I think that right now, we’ve got to capitalize on the groundswell of public opinion and public sentiment. That’s what’s going to move my colleagues: when their voters are calling and saying, “Why are we not supporting the restoration of the Voting Rights Act?” It’s really going to have to be public opinion that sways this, and right now, I think the irons are hot. I think the American people are upset about what happened in Georgia and in Florida, and they want to see us do something to restore the integrity of America’s electoral system.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.