THE REPORT: We Vote We Count

From “We the People” to “We Vote, We Count” constitutes a tumultuous journey involving the fundamental right to vote and the massive efforts to deny that right to people of color.

The Need For Congressional Action To Secure The Right To Vote For All Citizens

Summary

The United States has historically limited access to the ballot and enacted laws that disenfranchised people of color. Paradoxically, the country was founded as a democracy, yet forces have constantly sought to suppress the electoral efforts of people of color. The federal government has periodically responded with hard-fought and long-awaited federal voting rights protections that were necessary for democracy to prevail. One of the most effective pieces of legislation was the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA or “the Act”), which provided access to the ballot for people of color and required segregation’s forces to seek federal approval of voting changes prior to implementation. Nonetheless, structural racism remains pervasive not just throughout the South but the entire United States. The VRA continues to be necessary for combating widespread voter suppression, which includes, but is not limited to, registration restrictions and penalties against voter registration drives, voter purges, redistricting, reduction in polling places, restrictive voter ID laws, exorbitant fees for formerly incarcerated people to re-register, and proof of citizenship laws. Communities of color, in large scale, bear the brunt of voter suppression. Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander (AANHPI), African American, Hispanic  and American Indian communities from sea to shining sea have felt the pain of voter suppression. 

Over the past 75 years, rising political participation among voters of color, along with increasing immigration, has motivated states to implement voter suppression measures. This phenomenon is not new, but reflects similar trends occurring during Reconstruction and the pre-Civil War era. Current efforts to diminish and disenfranchise people of color during this and other important times in our country’s history are not accidents, but a pervasive and effective strategy to prevent or dissuade people of color from freely participating in the political process.  Without question, these attempts and successes to suppress the vote resemble practices of voter suppression during the civil rights era, prior to passage of the Voting Rights Act. A notable blow to federal efforts to curb suppression occurred in 2013, when the United States Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder found parts of the VRA unconstitutional. Since Shelby, states and other jurisdictions have implemented modern methods of disenfranchisement that are far-reaching and have real impact on communities of color and their ability to access the franchise. 

The Racial Equity Anchor Collaborative (Anchors) embarked on a grassroots effort to lift up the voices of voters of color and their experiences in accessing the right to vote.

We conducted “People’s Hearings” in select states over several months in 2019 and gathered first-hand accounts of voter suppression through those hearings and through lawsuits to protect voting rights. Witnesses gave evidence on the erosion of equal access to voting and voter registration and to the ferocity of post-Shelby election-related discrimination in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Texas. Witnesses attested to, among other things, having to wait in long lines to cast a ballot, being denied bilingual ballot language assistance, having to restore their registration status after an illegal voter purge, and having to stand up against last-minute changes to polling locations and hours of operation. Additionally, voters have had to adjust to increasingly scarce polling places with ever-changing locations, which present a huge burden for those without easy access to transportation and with inflexible work schedules. Witnesses further testified to:

  • An increase in the number of voting rights violations since the Shelby decision
  • An increase in the costs and burdens to access the right to vote
  • An increase in the costs of litigating Voting Rights Act violations
  • Strong evidence of discrimination in voting, and 
  • A need for transparency, notice, and federal protection for the right to vote.

In conducting the People’s Hearings, we found that witnesses primarily framed the right to vote in two ways:

  1. the right to be regarded and recognized as an eligible voter, and
  2. the right to cast a ballot without undue burden.

These frameworks were prevalent themes throughout the stories collected via the congressional and People’s Hearings, and on our website. This consistency indicated that, for communities of color, the right to be recognized as an eligible voter and the right to vote without undue burden are the components of the concept of the “right to vote” most severely contested or undermined in the modern-day fight to vote.

This report seeks to elevate the voices of affected communities across the country and provide important insights on the quest to vote. WeVoteWeCount addresses three primary issues:

  1. The impact of voting rights violations and litigation since the landmark Shelby County v. Holder decision; 
  2. Evidence of continued discrimination in voting and the ongoing need for federal protection; and 
  3. The need for increased transparency and protection for the right to vote.

The members of the Racial Equity Anchors Collaborative—Advancement Project, Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, Dēmos, Faith in Action, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Congress of American Indians, National Urban League, Race Forward, and UnidosUS—are a collaborative dedicated to a voting system that is free and allows all people the right to vote regardless of race, ethnicity or language ability.

The stories contained in this report illustrate the need for action to ensure that the right to vote remains a central part of the democratic system.

Efforts to destroy the right to vote have escalated since Shelby. However, the determination of these racial equity groups, and many other allies, has also increased to fight for the unfettered right to vote.  

The current levels of voter suppression unduly burden this fundamental right and disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color. This report provides testimony from African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, Latinos, and Native Peoples, whose first-hand accounts provide a glance into the inner workings of voter suppression in states across the country. The effort to add the voices of the people to the process has unearthed a symphony of witnesses who are worthy of attention. The people are declaring that We Vote! We Count!

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About The Authors

Gilda R. Daniels

Gilda is an Associate Professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and the Litigation Director for Advancement Project, a multicultural, next generation civil rights organization. She served as a Deputy Chief in the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Voting Section in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Her scholarship focuses on the intersections of race, law, and democracy.

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Tyson D. King-Meadows

Tyson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and an affiliate faculty member in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is an expert on voting rights, Black political behavior, and Black representation in Congress. His scholarship focuses on the intersections of race, institutional design, and public opinion

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Loren M. Henderson

Loren is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Health Administration and an affiliate faculty member in the Language, Literacy, and Culture Doctoral Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She is an expert in the study of social stratification and inequality, diversity and inclusion within organizations, and of the intersections of race, class, and gender on health outcomes and disparities

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Report Acknowledgments 

The authors would like to thank the W. K. Kellogg Foundation for funding the People’s Hearings, this report, and the members of the Racial Equity Anchors Collaborative: Advancement Project, Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, Dēmos, Faith in Action, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Congress of American Indians, National Urban League, Race Forward, and UnidosUS. Special thanks to Asian Americans Advancing Justice - AAJC for adding Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander voters’ voices into our work. The authors would especially like to thank Elana Needle, Project Director of the Racial Equity Anchor Collaborative, for her remarkable ability to keep everyone on task. We would also like to thank Maria Faini, Mellon/ACLS Fellow at Race Forward, and Amira Perryman, who served as an Advancement Project summer legal intern, for working on this project.