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Alabama congresswoman, SPLC call for federal oversight to implement voting reforms

With voting rights under attack across the country, the Alabama congresswoman at the center of efforts to restore critically needed ballot protections recently laid out a confident roadmap for action on legislation that would implement federal oversight of elections in some states. 

Speaking at a briefing hosted virtually by the Southern Poverty Law Center to mark the launch of its landmark report on voter suppression and the impact of the pandemic on voting across the Deep South in 2020, U.S. Rep. Terri A. Sewell, D-Alabama, predicted that HR 4, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, could come to a vote in September. Sewell said she believes the Senate will take whatever action is needed to ensure its passage.

The comprehensive SPLC report, “Overcoming the Unprecedented: Southern Voters’ Battle Against Voter Suppression, Intimidation, and a Virus,” provides clear evidence of the need for congressional action, Sewell said at the March 18 briefing. She pledged to work with the SPLC, Fair Fight Action, and other organizations across the South that have been instrumental in battling for voting rights in communities and in the courts.

“We are seeing state legislatures prove the point that federal oversight is still needed,” Sewell said at the briefing, praising the SPLC report for detailing so thoroughly the urgency of congressional action.

“We have bad actors. There are certain states that are just not going to follow the rules,” Sewell said. “Something so fundamental as the right to vote, yes, it resides with the states, but the states have shown themselves not to be great guardians of that right.”

The report is being released at a key juncture. Since the 2020 election, legislation designed to suppress the vote has swept the country, adding force to a dark wave of such laws passed over the past decade. As of March, more than 250 bills restricting the vote in the name of tackling election fraud were pending in 43 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Courts have found no evidence of systemic voter fraud during the 2020 election cycle. 

Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the SPLC and the SPLC Action Fund, said at the briefing that the effort to cast the recent wave of proposed restrictions on voting as a way of preventing fraud is “a dangerous, deadly lie.” 

“The reality is that these bills are being introduced for one reason only,” Huang said. “To prevent voters of color, young voters and members of other historically disenfranchised communities from maximizing their political voices and power.”

“That,” Huang said, “is the exact opposite policy reaction to what communities here in the Deep South need following the 2020 election cycle.” 

Fighting voter suppression

In contrast, the bill introduced by Sewell, along with companion legislation, H R 1, the For the People Act, which passed the House this month, provide real policy solutions, Huang said. H R 4 would restore key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act gutted in 2013 by developing a process to determine which states must pre-clear election changes to voting systems and practices with the U.S. Department of Justice. It would also mandate nationwide pre-clearance of known discriminatory practices, including the creation of at-large districts, inadequate multilingual voting materials and cuts to polling places.

A version of the legislation sponsored by Sewell, whose Alabama district includes Selma’s infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge, passed the House of Representatives in 2019. But today, with Democratic majorities in both chambers, prospects for making the bill law are far stronger than they were two years ago.

H R 1 would make voting easier and more accessible. It would require states to allow voters to register online, make voting registration automatic when Americans apply for state services, implement universal voting by mail and provide at least 15 days of early voting for federal elections in every state. It would prioritize locating polling places, where possible, next to public transportation. It would also ban the partisan gerrymandering that has been used by both political parties to hold power in congressional districts around the country. Districts would be drawn by independent commissions instead of politicians, and reviewed by the public before they could be finalized.

The SPLC report provides powerful justification for legislative action. In Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida – states with long histories of voter suppression – the report found that significant barriers had been erected by local and state officials in recent years against Black voters, high-risk voters and voters with disabilities. The majority of the obstacles to voting were implemented after the Supreme Court struck down a key requirement of the Voting Rights Act that required jurisdictions with long histories of voter suppression to receive approval from the Department of Justice before implementing new voting laws and procedures.  

The report details election systems shortcomings across the Deep South and election-related litigation and voter mobilization efforts. It found that in the midst of the pandemic, none of the states it examined did enough to ensure voters were not asked to choose between their health and their vote. It identifies specific policies needed to fortify election systems and ensure the fundamental right to vote is protected in future elections. 

“We recognized that the 2020 election and the 2021 runoff were really happening in the middle of a perfect storm,” Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for the SPLC and SPLC Action Fund, said at the briefing, explaining the urgency of the report.

“We not only were dealing with an unprecedented heath pandemic ... but we were dealing with a time of severe racial unrest and discontent,” Abudu said. “... We had a severe, and continue to face a political divide, often trumpeted by our former President Trump, and we were in a situation where we did not have the protections of Section Five of the Voting Rights Act, which had for decades provided the necessary protections for communities of color and other politically vulnerable populations from regressive voting practices and procedures that in many ways were designed to limit, deny or definitely hinder their access to the ballot box.”

Protecting the right to vote

The report provides an analysis of the SPLC’s recent lawsuits in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama on behalf of Black voters, high-risk voters, voters with disabilities, membership organizations and voter engagement organizations. It also details the successful Vote Your Voice initiative, a $30 million SPLC project that awarded grants to Black and Brown-led groups and communities to fuel get-out-the-vote, organizing and voter education efforts. 

Hillary Holley, organizing director for Fair Fight Action, the organizations founded in 2018 by Georgia’s Stacey Abrams to fight voter suppression, said at the briefing that the report “truly lays out the intersection of violence, disinformation and voter suppression” at play in 2020. She praised the SPLC for its efforts in Georgia, where Fair Fight Action is based. 

“If it were not for the very close relationship we have with Southern Poverty Law Center, 2020 could have looked a lot differently in Georgia, especially when it came to the potential for violence,” Holley said.

Photo by Getty Images/Caroline Brehman