Welcome To Voting Rights Boot Camp
Election season is getting underway in states all over the country, and voting rights advocates worry some of those places may move to disenfranchise minorities by exploiting a Supreme Court ruling.
That ruling last June blew up a system that had forced states with a history of discrimination to win federal approval before making election changes.
Now, legal groups are responding by training a new generation of activists to sue. Consider this recent gathering of a few dozen lawyers and community activists on the 28th floor of an Atlanta skyscraper.
A thick fog obscured the towers along Peachtree Street, but people like Robert Adams Jr. said their purpose was clear.
"I was invited by the president of the NAACP," Adams told NPR. "I'm one of the district coordinators for Georgia. We're always in the struggle and the fight, so I'm here to get some more training; training is always good."
Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project, has watched elections in Georgia since not long after Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Last year, a divided Supreme Court gutted part of that law, throwing into chaos a system that had required Georgia and eight other states to ask for federal permission before making any election changes.
McDonald, one of the lawyers teaching the session, told the audience he's noticed a difference.
"We know that in Georgia it is having a negative impact in some of the jurisdictions, and one of them is Augusta-Richmond County," McDonald said.
Before the Supreme Court ruled, the county planned to move up its elections from November to July. But the Justice Department objected to that plan, arguing it would depress black turnout. After the Supreme Court ruling, the county no longer had to ask for permission, so the change was made.
Already, the Atlanta Journal Constitution has found African-Americans are underrepresented in local governments across the state.
Gerald Hebert, director of the Campaign Legal Center, said that matters.
"At the local level, those are where decisions really get made that affect people's lives in a very fundamental way," Hebert said. "They're the things they talk about around the kitchen table. Not so much what's going on in the state legislature, but the city councils and school boards, and the education of their children, and where they go to school, and the conditions."
Hebert, one of the sponsors of the training, said the Justice Department has failed to follow up with lawsuits against many of those cities and counties.
"They have a responsibility to go out and do something about the fact that they previously found laws to be discriminatory that are now being implemented at the local level," he said. "But I haven't seen actions by DOJ, so I've been disappointed."
Hebert said victims of discrimination will now have to shoulder the burden of suing, and that won't be easy. Listen to this challenge presented by longtime voting lawyer Armand Derfner.
"A lot of us think we remember from law school that voting is a fundamental right. We all remember that, right?" Derfner asked as the audience nodded and murmured. "You think so? You better go back to law school. It is not a fundamental right."
Derfner reminded the crowd the right to vote is not spelled out in the U.S. Constitution, but he said voting is a fundamental right in many state constitutions, and that's where lawyers should start, he said, in looking for new ways to sue to protect minority voting rights.
Not everyone at the training believes there's reason for alarm in Georgia. Bryan Tyson, a young Atlanta lawyer, said the Supreme Court majority was right last year when it called out Congress for failing to update decades-old triggers in the Voting Rights Act.
"I haven't really seen any sort of massive resurgence of problems as a result of that," Tyson said. "Not really any major issues that I've seen as a result."
Ann Brumbaugh is a lawyer who's represented the state elections board and worked on a bipartisan rewrite of Georgia's elections code. She sees more cause for concern.
"It makes some people more willing to do reckless things, and it makes other people less willing to do necessary things," Brumbaugh said, explaining that not many eyes are focused on what small counties and towns are doing.
Instructors at the training session stressed that bringing — and winning — voting rights lawsuits in this new environment would be a challenge.
Caroline Fredrickson of the American Constitution Society, which co-sponsored the session, told NPR: "We are striving to engage and train more attorneys to counter these efforts that keep too many people away from the polls. Voting is a pillar of democracy, and it's not much of a pillar if participation of minorities, the poor, the elderly and students is hindered."
They're planning more legal training for people in Washington and Florida later this year.
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