Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Unheard Voices And Invisible Faces Of Voter Suppression.

August 28, 2016 by  
Filed under News, Politics, Weekly Columns

( Most Mondays, come the close of business, I head home to my wife and two teenage sons. But two weeks ago at 5pm, I was sitting in the Roanoke, Virginia police precinct, waiting to be fingerprinted, photographed, and charged. My misdemeanor? Trespassing, in formality; civil disobedience, in practice. My cause? The voting rights of people of color and youth.

August 6 marked the fifty-first anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. We observed solemnly this year, though, on account of the three-year-old legal milestone, Shelby County v. Holder. This 2013 Supreme Court decision disastrously undermined the Voting Rights Act’s protections against racial discrimination and opened up a floodgate of voter suppression. Suddenly, 1965 did not seem so distant, and we were hurled back to a time when Jim Crow reigned. State after state began creatively enacting voting restrictions that surreptitiously disenfranchised people of color and, even more covertly, youth. Now, instead of celebrating a half-century of equitable enfranchisement, we are about to face the harshest consequences of its absence. We are just over two months away from the first presidential election in fifty years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act.

And so, in an ode to our civil rights forbearers, Stephen Green, national director of the NAACP’s Youth & College Division, and I joined forces with the Roanoke NAACP and Youth Council to hold a sit-in in the office of Representative Bob Goodlatte. Goodlatte chairs voter-suppression-button-2017the House Judiciary Committee, which has refused to hold hearings on legislation to combat egregiously discriminatory voting laws enacted post-Shelby. Throughout our six-hour, nonviolent demonstration, the thirty of us – young and old together – called upon Representative Goodlatte to end his three-year pattern of inaction and commit to restoring the Voting Rights Act.

Yet, despite our persistent presence, Goodlatte did not concede; Instead, he produced a recycled statement that called the Voting Rights Act “alive and well” as a tool for eradicating any state’s discriminatory voting laws. This sort of denial is utterly insulting and wholly insufficient. Our predecessors bled, sweat, and died for the right to vote; We pay respect to their bravery by continuing the tradition of civil disobedience, and we demand that our elected officials honor their sacrifice by restoring the Voting Rights Act.

Representative Goodlatte said that he would lend his support if discrimination could be shown. Thanks to the urging and advocacy of the NAACP, six courts and six states have revealed such discrimination. In the Congressman’s home state of Virginia, the U.S. Court Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that North Carolina lawmakers had enacted voting laws with “racially discriminatory intent.” Here, sir, is your evidence. The Voting Rights Act is infirm and impaired, not “alive and well.”

We mourn the blows to the efficacy of the Voting Rights Act in the wake of Shelby County v. Holder, but today’s story of voter suppression is not the black versus white tale of 1965. Our electorate grows increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-generational every year, and African Americans are not the only ones who have been intentionally disenfranchised. There is a set of victims that our forbearers might not have imagined: youth. Young people are the bruised but invisible faces of today’s voter suppression.

“We have to meet our young people eye to eye and let them know that we see their faces and value their votes.”

We know the power of the millennial vote because we saw it in action in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. Young voters’ voices were booming until Shelby v. Holder restrictions systematically silenced them. In North Carolina, the changes were immediate: within weeks of the Supreme Court decision, state lawmakers set to work disenfranchising young voters by shutting down early voting sites on college campuses. Students at Appalachian State University in Watauga County took their case to court and won back their right to an accessible polling place, but other students studying in similarly conservative counties, such as those at the historically black Winston-Salem State University in Forsyth County, have not been so lucky. Increasingly, in states across the nation, polling places are moved off college campuses with a moment’s notice, school IDs are no longer honored at the ballot box, and DMVs are conveniently closed just when high school seniors are out of school.

This is nothing less than a generational assault against young voters. This kind of voter suppression is not partisan gamesmanship, but rather the corruption of our democracy.

We at the NAACP will not stand for this. We are known as the oldest and largest civil rights organization in the United States, but we are just as concerned about the rights of young Americans – a concern that grows daily as we approach November 8. We oppose youth-targeted voter suppression just as fiercely as we do race-driven voter suppression. This year, we at the NAACP celebrate an anniversary of our own: the eightieth year of our Youth & College Division. While our 107-year lifetime sometimes earns us epithets like “geriatric,” our long-standing commitment to including the voices of young people protects us from ever becoming archaic. As added insurance, ten percent of our board members are under the age of 25.

But the numbers of young people in our boardroom pale in comparison to the numbers in our nation. In the past four years, 16.5 million youth have turned 18. Come November, one third of 18-29 year olds will be eligible to vote in a presidential election for the first time. That means we have 16.9 million potential new young voters ready to register.

We cannot let these millions down. The voting restrictions enacted in the wake of Shelby v. Holder send a dangerous message. By limiting the opportunities for millennials to become enfranchised citizens, lawmakers like Representative Goodlatte are telling young people that their voices do not matter, that their votes do not count. This message does not mix with the sort of vivacious, ambitious democracy we seek to nurture. I may take a historical perspective on the battle for voting rights, but there is nothing outdated about the ballot. Casting a vote is the original, grassroots act of expression – a radical act characteristic of the energy and intelligence of this “woke” generation. Young people have been the invisible victims of voter suppression these past three years. As we lobby our elected leaders to reinstate the protections won way back in 1965, we have to meet our young people eye to eye and let them know that we see their faces and value their votes.

Columnist; Cornell William Brooks

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