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Does Russiagate Concern Weaken an Ambitious Voting Rights Platform?

November 27, 2019

The Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights released a sweeping policy platform challenging political candidates to address voter disenfranchisement, but a nod to Russiagate raises questions about an otherwise strong proposal.

The Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights released a sweeping policy platform challenging political candidates to address voter disenfranchisement, but a nod to Russiagate raises questions about an otherwise strong proposal.


WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 09:  Protesters gather during a rally held by the group Common Cause in front of the U.S. Supreme Court January 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. Voting rights activists rallied to oppose voter roll purges as the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the Husted v. A Philip Randolph Institute, a challenge to Ohio's voter roll purges. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Story Transcript

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network.

We continue to cover the fight to protect the unrestricted right to vote in the U.S. with the release of a sweeping policy platform by the Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights that is designed to challenge current and future political candidates to adopt concrete policies to address key areas of persistent and expanding voter disenfranchisement.

Here to talk about this sweeping policy platform and what it could mean for upcoming elections and the future of voting in the U.S. is Demelza Baer. Demelza is the Director of Public Policy Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Demelza, thanks so much for joining me.

DEMELZA BAER: Thank you, Jacqueline, it’s a pleasure to be with you.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So this is a pretty expansive and a really all-inclusive policy platform that addresses six major areas in which reforms need to be enacted that have been identified over the course of some time that have been issues in voting or access to voting for American citizens. Can you talk about the organization that created this platform, the coalition that’s behind it, and then we’ll get into the six policy areas?

DEMELZA BAER: Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is the umbrella organization for all the civil rights and social justice organizations, both nationally and also encompassing state and local organizations. And the Leadership Conference convenes a number of organizations for various issue task forces, including on voting and democracy issues. And this platform document, which the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, our organization, signed onto really represents the consensus viewpoint among all of our civil rights community about the most critical issues impacting the right to vote and on protecting and strengthening our democracy.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So the six policy areas that are addressed in this platform are, like I said, pretty expansive. And they do encompass separate issues that people have experienced; issues in regard to ballot access or voting access or the outright denial of the right to vote for several groups of people in this country. So the issues, just taken as a whole, are policies that are designed to prevent barriers to the ballot box. What does that mean?

DEMELZA BAER: Barriers to the ballot box can be anything from voter purges of people who are eligible to vote by states to actual legal barriers like requiring a photo ID to vote, which about 11% of people in this country who are just disproportionally People of Color, women, people with disabilities, and young people don’t have. Or it could be something direct as denying the right to vote to an eligible voter, or it could be something as simple as lines that are hours long on election day that result in eligible voters having to leave because they have to go back to work or pick up their children, and so they’re not able to exercise the right to vote. Right now, these issues are unfortunately more critical than ever. Six years ago, the Supreme Court, in a decision called Shelby County v. Holder struck down what was the core protections of the Voting Rights Act, which is section five pre-clearance.

And section five pre-clearance was, really, what marked a turning point in this country in protecting the right to vote for People of Color, particularly Black voters. This was a requirement that required states and jurisdictions with the worst records of discrimination in voting to send any proposed changes to their voting laws or procedures to the US Department of Justice for their review and approval within a 60 day time period. Or they could also send it to the district court for the District of Columbia. And this really marked a turning point in voting rights in this country because for decades, after the franchise had been extended to People of Color, there were Jim Crow laws that created barriers to the vote, like poll taxes or literacy tests. And every time a law was challenged and struck down, a new discriminatory law would come up in its place, or there would be other tactics derived, that would be slight variations on tactics that had already been deemed illegal and discriminatory by a court.

And so what section five did was it provided the protection that before any of these changes could be put into place, they would have to be subject to a review to ensure that there wasn’t any diminution in the voting power of People of Color. Since Shelby County v. Holder held, in a five-four decision, that the coverage formula was unconstitutional, the entire pre-clearance procedure has been not in effect. And since that time, we’ve seen the floodgates to voting discrimination opened. The Lawyers’ Committee, our organization, has filed almost 40 actions since 2013, when Shelby County v. Holder was decided. And a number of our coalition partners have also filed a number of actions, but we really are seeing, right now, barriers to the vote that are second generation barriers.

Obviously, things like poll taxes and literacy tests were deemed illegal by the law, but now we’re seeing new versions of them. For instance, there are certain states that condition the restoration to the right to vote after you’ve had a felony conviction on paying certain fines and fees. Well, that is really a modern day poll tax because it’s conditioning your right to access to the ballot based on your ability to pay.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And that is included under the section for ending felony disenfranchisement also, correct?

DEMELZA BAER: That is correct. That is correct. This platform document really captures a lot of what would be our kind of historical long challenges with denying the right to vote. And felon disenfranchisement is really something that needs to end, and it’s something that states actually have been taking the lead on. You look at Florida and the ballot measure that restored the right to vote to a number of people who had completed their sentences, and today in the state of New Jersey the General Assembly is actually voting on a provision that would extend the right to vote to people who are on probation and parole. And this is something that… the Leadership Conference platform document really asks for the entire country to abolish any linkage between the right to vote and the criminal justice system, and ensure that everyone, including people who are incarcerated, have the right to vote, that there should be no connection between the fundamental right to vote and the criminal justice system.

There are a number of other recommendations that really work to extend the number of people who are registered to vote. Right now, about a third of people who are eligible voters are not registered, so there’s recommendations on having something like automatic voter registration, like when you go to a government agency, you’re automatically registered to vote. And that procedure already exists in a number of states.

And there’s other recommendations about making it easier to vote and removing some of the barriers, such as having polling places that are not accessible by public transportation or accessible to people who have disabilities and ensuring that poll workers are adequately trained on things like working with voters who have limited English proficiency. So, this really is a sweeping document, imagining not only restoring some of the protections that we lost after the Shelby County v. Holder decision, but also reimagining what our democracy could look like, if we really enabled every citizen to participate and made it as easy as possible and mad it as inclusive as possible.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So we’re talking about–in the areas that you just mentioned–expanding voter registration and increasing voter participation and access, but not just on a state and local level where some of these actions are being considered, they’ve already been taken up and passed as state and local laws. What we’re talking about–this platform is for action on a federal level, correct? So, we’re talking about something that will be applied, blanketly, across the nation, so we wouldn’t have to rely on patchwork solutions in one state or another.

DEMELZA BAER: That’s absolutely correct, Jacqueline. And I will say that one of the core recommendations of this platform document is very relevant and timely right now. And that recommendation is for Congress to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act that was struck down in Shelby County v. Holder six years ago and would strengthen the protections of the Voting Rights Act and really make the law responsive to modern day challenges to the right to vote, such as things like voter purges which actually affect millions of voters every year.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And these policy recommendations really do include the vast array of different ways that different factions in this country have fought to impede or erode the right to vote for different groups of people. Because the platform includes language calling for the passage of the Native American Voting Rights Act, prohibiting restrictive voter ID requirements, restoring voting rights to all current and former incarcerated citizens, standardizing early voting systems across the country. So, it really is an all-inclusive and very timely set of recommendations.

DEMELZA BAER: Exactly, Jacqueline. The vision for the document, which we’re proud to support at the Lawyers’ Committee, is really envisioning a world where your gender, your race, your ethnicity, your membership in a Native American tribe, whether you have a physical disability, all of these things shouldn’t ever impact your right to exercise your fundamental right to vote. And, you know, this is really something that’s core to not just ensuring that all groups of people, particularly People of Color who have historically been excluded and had their right to vote be challenged every turn, but really envisioning a world where all of us have an equal say in our democracy. And this policy platform doesn’t just impact the right to vote, it impacts all other policy areas.

Because the right to vote, as the Supreme Court has said, is the right that is preservative of other rights. And that really means that when we exercise the right to vote and we cast a ballot for our candidate of choice, we’re really expressing our preference for the kind of elected official we want to represent us on a number of other issues. And it is through the right to vote that you’ve seen an enormous expansion of elected officials who are People of Color, who are women, where you’ve seen, now, this United States Congress having the most diversity in our nation’s history. The right to vote has really been critical to expanding not just participation, but really political and electoral power that results in policy changes, that ensure that every one of us has an equal opportunity for our individual and our community’s voice to be heard.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Now, I want to call attention to one particular section of proposals in this policy platform, Demelza, is strengthening election security. Now, I ask you this because I’m interested in what your response would be to what might be criticism to parts of this section. Because when we look at the overall voter participation rates in America over time, let’s say over the past 20 years in presidential and midterm elections, the United States has the lowest percentage of voter turnout among many developed world countries and has for decades. So why in this section on ensuring election security was Russian involvement an influence, a focus of efforts to secure elections for this document? But Russia may not have been involved in… certainly couldn’t have been involved in 20 years of low voter turnout in the U.S.

DEMELZA BAER: Jacqueline, I think that low voter turnout… I think one of the key policy recommendations in the report is addressing that through automatic voter registration because I think some of the other nations that have higher voter registration and turnout than us, it really ties to the fact that they make it much easier to vote. They put the onus of voting registration on the government, rather than the individual, so they will automatically register people and sometimes even update the registration automatically when people move. And one of the recommendations, in the platform document, is to have a national system of automatic voter registration, which would make the voter rolls much more efficient, it would ensure that more people were able to participate, and it would also probably create a smoother system on election day. And another core recommendation is to have same day voter registration to enable people, on election day, to walk up, register to vote, and cast a ballot.

And the states in the United States that have same day voter registration have much higher participation rates, sometimes as high as 70, 80% because they make it easier for people to vote. I think, specifically, the platform document, in the election security section, does mention the attempted interference in our 2016 election by the Russian government, particularly in the context that the Senate Intelligence Committee, through a bipartisan report, found that the Russian government was deliberately trying to suppress the Black vote through Facebook ads and other targeting. And that really relates to how critical it is for social media companies like Facebook and Twitter and other online platforms to really ensure that misinformation is not being spread, especially when it comes to elections and our democracy because there already are many, many ways in which different people try to suppress the vote of People of Color.

But it is particularly dangerous when a foreign country tries to interfere in our election by trying to suppress the vote in the Black community or any group of voters. And that’s something that is core to this document, which is ensuring the electoral power and preservation of the right to vote for People of Color, and for many other groups, like as you said, people with disabilities, young people, people with limited English proficiency. These are all groups of people who have been subject to discrimination voting and subject to heightened barriers to casting a ballot. And that has hurt our democracy, it is impacted election outcomes, and it’s something that we really need to directly address at the federal level and through proactive legislation.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Well, one of the proactive legislative proposals in this section, in regard to what you just mentioned, is to increase regulation and oversight of digital platforms to deter and guard against the spread of misinformation and suppression of the vote of communities of color. For some people, this sounds like this policy document is saying that the answer to protecting communities of color from misinformation is censorship of digital platforms.

And then, people would ask, who decides what regulations should control information on digital platforms? Who decides what information is misinformation and what’s not misinformation? And isn’t this idea premised on the thought that some Facebook and Twitter memes, a lot of which weren’t about the election, a significant percentage of which were posted after the election, are what caused some Black people, allegedly, not to vote? What do you say to criticism of this particular policy when people look at it and say, “That sounds like censorship to me,” and that kind of sounds that people are saying that Black people were duped into not voting by some Facebook memes?

DEMELZA BAER: So I think that the position in the platform document is just simply that online platforms have a responsibility to ensure that incorrect information or misleading information with regards to elections are not transmitted to any groups of people, but particularly not People of Color who are being deliberately targeted. And that just has to do with the fact that during the period before an election, you wouldn’t want to have, for instance, a message saying, “Election day has been changed to Wednesday,” or “Your polling place location has been changed.”

And that really goes to the fact that we’re in a time when modern technology is evolving so quickly, that our traditional standards and expectations, responsibilities for companies, are just now catching up with the online platforms. And if you think about the responsibilities that entities like these have, it’s basically to make sure that they’re not unwittingly being used as a tool, particularly, not by foreign interests or a political party or any other political entity, to influence the outcome of our elections.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So, from what we understand, from the Mueller report, those things were not a part of the outcome of the investigation. So, is it possible that maybe that particular section could be rethought or can benefit from some more input from the very communities that are impacted from the potential action that could be taken, by having additional regulation and oversight, which is actually happening right now, as Facebook and other social media outlets are limiting content and are also, at the same time, targeting communities and posters of color, for the content they provide? Could that be a section that could benefit from a little bit more input from some of the communities that are impacted?

DEMELZA BAER: Well, what I think this document really sets forth is, kind of, a broad vision for how we could have a more inclusive democracy that really ensures that all of us have the ability to cast a ballot, to elect the candidates of choice, and to ensure that all groups of people in our nation are equally represented and have the full ability to ensure that their electoral power isn’t diluted or diminished.

I think that when we’re getting down to the nitty gritty of new laws or regulations or policies or procedures, they absolutely have to include the voices of people who are directly impacted. And that could be People of Color, it could be the Native American community, it could be people with limited English proficiency, people with disabilities, young people, senior citizen voters; it’s really the people who are most being impacted by any particular change absolutely need to not just be at the table, but be leading those conversations about what those changes should be.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So what can people do with this policy document now to make it an effective part in the political discourse going forward? Because as of now up to this point, there has not been a lot of discussion in any of the democratic debates, about this issue, about expanding voter access and ensuring voting rights. What can people do with this policy document to insert these issues into this political discussion?

DEMELZA BAER: Thank you, Jacqueline. That’s a really great question, and you’re right. The issue of voting rights didn’t even come up until I think the most recent presidential debate, but it hadn’t come up before. And it’s such a vital issue to protecting all of our rights; but particularly the rights of voters of color, voters with limited English proficiency, Native American tribes and their sovereignty, protecting the rights of voters who have a disability.

So in order to really ensure that this issue is elevated I think basically starting with your local community, engaging with your local civic organizations, contacting your elected officials, contacting your members of Congress and urging them to support the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the pre-clearance protections of the Voting Rights Act. And also just letting your elected officials who are local, state, national, know that you care about protecting the right to vote and that you’re paying attention to all these issues, such as whether it becomes easier to register to vote or harder, and when there are barriers that states sometimes put up to voting, such as closing polling places, sometimes reducing early voting, and advocating for expanding rights and making sure that it’s easier for you and your neighbors to vote and to exercise your voice in our democracy.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Well, Demelza Baer, thank you so much for joining me to discuss this very expansive policy platform and the continuing fight to ensure and expand voting rights in the United States.

DEMELZA BAER: Thank you so much, Jacqueline. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And thank you so much for watching. We will continue to cover this fight for the continued protection of the constitutionally guaranteed right to vote in this country. In the meantime, I am Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network in Baltimore.