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Why voting rights activists aren’t giving up

Though the movement has faced setbacks in Congress and at the Supreme Court, organizers say they must keep fighting “Jim Crow 2.0.”

People march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, with placards bearing the image of the late US Rep. John Lewis, for whom the most recent voting rights bill is named, during commemorations for the 57th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” on March 6. The Edmund Pettus Bridge was the site of the brutal beatings of civil rights marchers, including Lewis, at the hands of police during the first march for voting rights on March 7, 1965. The televised attacks prompted public support for the civil rights activists in Selma and for the voting rights campaign.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

Is the push to protect voting rights dead?

Democrats’ voting rights legislation, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, was defeated in the Senate in January. A few weeks later, the Supreme Court allowed a racially gerrymandered congressional map in Alabama to take effect for the 2022 election, signaling the court’s continued willingness to gut the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Despite the repeated setbacks, activists are still working to protect and restore voters’ rights on the ground. In January, to mark the 57th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when state troopers bludgeoned voting rights activists as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, thousands of activists, lawmakers, and supporters crossed the bridge to signal their dedication to the cause and all those who fought for voting rights before them.

Cliff Albright, the co-founder of Give Us the Ballot and co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund, one of the organizers of the event, told Vox that the movement for voting rights is only gaining momentum. Though Biden and Democratic leaders failed to move key legislation forward in January, the moment wasn’t all a loss, Albright said.

“This voting rights battle is happening on the same cracks in the foundation of this country that existed back then. There was never an intent that everybody be able to vote. It was always about white men with property. You had all of these restrictions on who could vote and that’s the same battle we’re fighting today,” Albright said.

Though Congress will not debate the merits of the voting rights bills anytime soon, Albright says it is up to activists to keep pressuring lawmakers as we move forward toward the midterm elections. I talked to Albright about how the movement will shift this year and why voting rights concerns aren’t overblown. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Fabiola Cineas

We just got through a period of what some have called a historic defeat for voting rights. Was what happened in January a total loss in your eyes? What have you taken away from what happened in Congress?

Cliff Albright

Obviously, we were hugely disappointed with the outcome of the vote. But with that said, we think that it was important for that vote to take place. We have to keep in mind that the previous three votes on the voting rights legislation were not actual votes on the legislation. They voted on whether or not to debate. [Laughs] In the world’s so-called “most deliberative body” we didn’t even get to deliberate.

We kept the pressure on the Senate and White House all spring, summer, fall, and winter last year to make sure that the debate and voting took place. We had to put people on the record. It’s not enough that Manchin and Sinema were always doing gaggles or writing op-eds talking about what they’re not going to do. At some point, they have to vote and go on the record.

Even the fact that the president belatedly came out calling for filibuster reform was the result of movement. There’s no sugar coating it: It’s frustrating; it’s a disappointment that these bills didn’t pass. But when we talk about organizing, and assessing our impact, there are examples of the movement moving the needle.

Fabiola Cineas

Then, at the beginning of February, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Merrill v. Milligan that upholds Alabama’s racially gerrymandered congressional map. How did this decision impact the movement?

Cliff Albright

It’s really symbolic, right? Because we are talking about this as Jim Crow 2.0. For that analogy to be accurate, you need an onslaught of states that are under the guise of states’ rights taking away voting rights. We saw that happen during Reconstruction. You also need a Congress that is going to demonstrate its own inability to put in the appropriate protections. And, more importantly, you need to have a Supreme Court that is going to either roll back whatever protections exist or one that is actually going to go out of the way to instill a new doctrine.

Here we have a Supreme Court that has consistently been doing the same thing, at least since the Shelby decision in 2013. When you look at the series of decisions they’ve had from Shelby to Brnovich last year, to this most recent one, what you see is that they are systematically tearing apart the Voting Rights Act.

Just looking at the legal arguments behind it — it’s absolutely ridiculous. The decision is reminiscent of two things: the early Supreme Court and the Dred Scott case and Bush v. Gore.

The Supreme Court is now literally trying to impact the midterm elections. It can’t even pretend to be a nonpartisan court. It is clearly a partisan body that is trying to tip the scales of the midterm elections in favor of the Republican Party. This highlights the fact that as part of these discussions of voting rights and other issues, there has to be a serious discussion about expanding the court.

Fabiola Cineas

Some pundits have suggested that fears over voter suppression have been overblown, that according to research, voter ID laws don’t actually depress voter turnout and that we should be setting our sights on election subversion. As an activist mapping out strategy right now, what’s your response to that?

Cliff Albright

Election subversion is clearly a threat, so we need to give that adequate attention. But this notion that voter suppression doesn’t have an impact is really just a silly one. Part of the problem is that we become victims of our own success. We live voter suppression — having to overcome it is just a part of our lives. Georgia is the perfect example. In 2020, we didn’t win the state because there was no voter suppression. We won the state and had massive Black turnout because we had to work to make that happen. It’s not that we win things because there’s no suppression. We win things because we were able to overcome it.

But in overcoming it, that then becomes the rationale in people saying, “Oh, it must not have been that bad.” That’s the rationale that Roberts used in the Shelby decision.

In regards to the study, there are a lot of reasons why a lot of that data is just really faulty. Sometimes it’s because they’re looking at states that are just adding certain provisions or just taking away certain provisions, and they’re not looking at the effect of taking away something that’s been in existence for 10 years or for 20 years versus a state that just never had a certain provision. But they’re really comparing apples and oranges.

But if you even put all that aside and think about common sense. What we know is anytime you close or move a polling place, turnout goes down. In fact, you can just look at how far extra somebody has to travel to get to their polling places and you can see a correlation between how much turnout goes down. The same thing happens with all of these different provisions, whether it is reducing days of early voting, making ID restrictions or something else.

Just look at what’s happening in Texas right now. Forty percent or so of ballot applications are being returned. Anytime you add on these provisions, we see that turnout is impacted.

Fabiola Cineas

What about the idea that voting has just become easier overall — that we are at a point in American history when a significant number of Americans can vote?

Cliff Albright

I say come to come to the communities where we do our work. There are some people who when we describe the impact of these provisions, whether it’s the line warming or the long lines or the food and water that we have to bring to people, or the drop boxes, for some people it’s just a foreign notion. It’s an experience that just does not match their lived experience. There are white folks in this country who have never had to wait more than five minutes to vote

So there’s really no reason for somebody to be that ignorant of the realities that other people are living with when it comes to this voting experience. And it may not always be five or six hours. Maybe it’s just an hour or thirty minutes, which is still too much especially when you consider that there is a white neighborhood 30 minutes to an hour away where there is absolutely no line.

So to the people who say it’s not that hard to vote or not that hard to get an ID, we’ve seen that these policies don’t exist in isolation. They exist in a context where there are other things that are layered on top of the policy.

Alabama is the perfect example. When they passed their photo ID law, simultaneously, they closed every department of motor vehicles in the Black Belt counties. So at the same time that they were requiring you to get a photo ID they literally closed down the places in the Black community where you could get a photo ID.

This is what Jim Crow was when it came to voting. Jim Crow and voting weren’t just about a “Black Only” sign or “White Only” sign. Jim Crow and voting was always race neutral on its face. The law didn’t say only Black people had to count the jelly beans or pay the poll tax. The law was very neutral, but it’s implementation was clearly racist and that’s what these policies are. There are ways that they create these things where they know what the impact is going to be. Sometimes it is surgical precision when they target Black communities and Black polling places.

The last thing I’ll say to them is can you imagine the opposite? Imagine those videos of the six-hour lines. Can you imagine that those people waiting are white folks? Can you imagine a situation where it’s in white communities that’s they’re closing six out of seven polling places like they’re currently doing in Lincoln County, Georgia. Can you imagine a map being gerrymandered in such a way where white people make up 60 percent of the population of a state but only getting 30 percent of the seats? You can’t even imagine that. Your mind can’t wrap itself around that reality in this country.

Fabiola Cineas

Some people have also argued that with the amount of states passing legislation that protects and expands voting rights, voter suppression will be sort of canceled out. For example, Colorado is making it easier to vote for people who don’t speak English. The law establishes a hotline that provides voting and election information in a number of different languages. Is it the case that these kinds of laws provide a balance to voter suppression?

Cliff Albright

Unfortunately, no, it doesn’t work that way. It’s always a good thing to see states that are expanding access. These states saw how popular and effective and safe vote by mail was during the pandemic, and finally opened up their eyes. They are making these options that worked during the pandemic universally available to have some of the best turnout in the country.

And there are other techniques these states are considering that deal with structural issues, like ranked-choice voting or proportional representation.

The reality is all of these states could expand access, even states in the North and in the West. We’re fighting a battle of just trying to hold on to some stuff that we thought we had in 1965, but we need to be fighting this battle on the offensive side of the field. We can’t just always be talking about how we’re fighting against voter suppression. We need to be discussing how we expand access to the vote. We’ve got to be thinking more radically and creatively about how we really, truly expand access to voting.

Fabiola Cineas

What do you believe is missing from conversations about voting rights?

Cliff Albright

We’ve got to rethink what fair representation looks like. There’s a piece of this voting rights legislation battle that hasn’t received a lot of discussion. The Freedom to Vote Act is critical. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act is critical. All the provisions that are in both of those things combined are critical.

But there’s a Fair Representation Act that has gotten no discussion that deals with this issue of proportional representation, which would structurally reduce the possibility of racial gerrymandering. But it’s not getting any attention because that’s the kind of structural change that, quite frankly, probably scares not just one side of the aisle but the other side as well. We need to be having a much more expansive discussion around this democracy. Either we want people to vote, or we don’t. What’s sad is that this battle is happening on the same fault line that was present at the start of this country.

Fabiola Cineas

So what is the strategy on the ground right now? Through your work with Gives Us the Ballot and the Black Voters Matter Fund, can you give me an idea of what the voting rights activism landscape looks like?

Cliff Albright

On John Lewis’s birthday, we launched a campaign that we call 1 million for voting rights, which is an effort to get a million people to sign a pledge that says they’ll engage in this battle through a variety of call to actions that we are making available. They’ll be called to action around the legislation, around making phone calls and texting about getting this legislation passed.

Then there will be calls to action around engaging in this election cycle because until we get some people replaced, we’re always going to be running up against this filibuster issue.

We’re also working on doing a pledge for candidates. We’re going to be pitching this to the party, saying, anybody who gets party support needs to sign a pledge that says if elected, they will support voting rights, including modifying the filibuster. We went out two years ago and told people, “Hey, if we win the Senate seats, we’ll have control of the Senate and Congress and we’ll be able to get some stuff done.”

We went out, did that, and made history. But they didn’t pass stuff. And now they’re asking us to go back and tell our community the same thing. But the problem was we didn’t really have a commitment up front that they would get done what they said they would do. So if we’re going to go out and try to get people to come out and vote again, my organization can’t just tell people that this time is going to be different.

We need these candidates upfront to sign a pledge. Will you commit to modifying this filibuster? Are you going to get voting rights passed? Will you commit to fair representation? Will you commit to DC statehood, which is one of the old forms of voter suppression?

We are going to come out and mobilize our community but this time we’re going to do it with some promissory notes in hand. We plan to continue doing rallies, putting pressure on the senators, and doing civil disobedience. I’ve been arrested five times since the summer. We recognize that just doing things the way we were doing things wasn’t going to be enough. We had to be willing to use some principles of nonviolent civil disobedience to keep the conversation going and to keep the pressure on.

Fabiola Cineas

At this stage, what keeps you motivated to keep organizing and hopeful the Black voters won’t be taken for granted any longer?

Cliff Albright

Our history gives me faith, and the strength of our current movement gives me faith. My faith gives me faith because we ain’t been brought this far for nothing. The small victories that we’ve seen along the way also keep me going.

Last year in Georgia, we flipped 41 seats that were primarily in rural areas, for example. Black voters helped make that happen. It’s these little things that let me know that the battle is not over, that we have power and at the end of the day we will win.