Rev. William J. Barber, the activist preacher known for helping to lead the fight against strict voter laws in North Carolina, will march with other faith leaders in Washington on Friday to mark the fourth anniversary of the 2013 Supreme Court decision that all but neutered the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The march comes after two of victories for voting rights advocates in North Carolina, where Barber is the outgoing head of the state chapter of the NAACP. In May, the Supreme Court ruled that the state legislature had relied on racial gerrymandering in how it drew two congressional districts. In a separate case, it let stand a lower-court ruling that found a state voting law — which required strict identification, reduced the early-voting period and barred same-day registration — discriminated against African American voters.
Still, Barber, president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach, and interfaith movement, said in a conference call with reporters Thursday that efforts to make it harder for people of color to vote are continuing and the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions will not aggressively challenge stricter voting laws enacted largely in states controlled by Republican legislatures.
“The truth is homegrown voter suppression poses a greater threat to U.S. democracy than Russian election tampering,” Barber said.
Voting rights advocates have said that the 2013 decision, Shelby v Holder, resulted in a slew of new laws restricting access to voting. The law, one of the landmark pieces of civil rights legislation, protected African Americans and other people of color from discriminatory practices in states. The court decision effectively struck down a requirement that states with a history of discrimination seek prior approval from the Justice Department before making changes in voting laws and procedures.
In the 5-4 decision, the majority essentially argued that the country’s racial climate had changed since the law was enacted and that Congress should come up with new criteria to determine which states needed extra scrutiny. So far Congress has not moved to restore that provision of the Voting Rights Act, called Section 5. Barber said that issue also will be addressed in remarks before the march, scheduled to start at 10 a.m. and circle the Supreme Court.
“For nearly four years, the leadership of the Senate and the House have not brought for one bill to fully restore the Voting Rights Act,” said Barber said. “This is the real hacking of our democracy; the real hacking of our election system.”
According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, as of May, at least 99 bills to restrict registration and voting have been introduced in 31 states, and more than a third of those bills have seen some type of legislative action. The center notes that although bills introduced to expand voting access outnumber those that would restrict access, “more legislation to limit participation is advancing toward passage.”
Trump has falsely claimed that millions of people voted illegally in the presidential election, citing it as the reason he lost the popular vote. He has created a commission charged with studying both voter fraud and suppression.
Under former president Barack Obama, the Justice Department frequently sided with voting rights advocates in challenging voting restrictions, but less than two weeks after Sessions took over the department, it dropped its position that Texas’s strict voter ID law was intentionally discriminatory against voters of color.
Myrna Perez, who directs the voting project at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, said civil rights lawyers have been fighting Texas officials for five years over the voter ID law.
“We’ve won this case several times,” she said, but state lawmakers respond with a new law. “What I think is really salient about this is that one of the things that Section 5 did was prevent the kinds of gamesmanship we’re seeing right now.”
Penda Hair, legal director of Forward Justice, a law, policy and strategy center focused on civil rights and social change in the South, agreed that getting rid of the pre-clearance requirement has made it harder on lawyers to fight the states.
In states around the country, she said: “Courageous clients … have go through years of litigation. Previously, the burden would be on the state to go the Justice Department to prove that the changes they wanted to enact were not discriminatory,” she said. “The burden that has been put on private activists to do what the Department of Justice used to do is tremendous.”