‘We should be outraged’: Alabama congresswoman tackles voter suppression
Terri Sewell’s bill, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, is a first step to defending minority voters from attempts to block the ballot box
The Democratic party will introduce HR4 this week, which will restore the protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA
The Democratic party this week launches a major push to repair America’s broken electoral system and counter a wave of voter suppression that has swept the country, depriving hundreds of thousands of citizens of the right to vote.
Terri Sewell, an Alabama congresswoman from the civil rights crucible of Selma, is sponsoring the Voting Rights Advancement Act that will be introduced to the House of Representatives on Tuesday. She told the Guardian it was time to restore and advance American democracy: “We don’t want just to shatter the glass ceiling, we want to break down the door.”
She added: “We should be making it easier for people to vote. We should be strong enough as a nation that everybody can have a voice.”
Sewell’s bill, known as HR4, is being treated as a priority by the Democratic leadership that has regained control of the House. The party sees restoring and modernizing the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the signature reform of the civil rights era, as a crucial first step towards defending black and other minority voters from widespread Republican attempts to block access to the ballot box.
“People should be outraged that ordinary Americans who just want to exercise the right to vote are finding it harder, as state legislatures put up modern-day barriers,” said Sewell from her congressional office in Washington.
The legislation is intended to fill the gaping hole that was punched into the Voting Rights Act in 2013 when the US supreme court effectively gutted the protections afforded by Lyndon Johnson’s most celebrated reform. In a ruling called Shelby County v Holder the five conservative justices on the court ended almost half a century of federal oversight of states and counties, most in the Deep South, that had a track record of discriminating against black and other minority voters.
In the wake of that ruling, the removal of federal controls has unleashed a rush of voter suppression directed primarily against African American, poor, elderly and young voters. A Brennan Center database shows that 22 states have introduced restrictive voting measures since the floodgates opened six years ago.
The flurry of suppression has been so intense, the center found, that last year’s midterm election cycle saw voter suppression that was “more widespread and brazen than in any other since the modern-day assault on voting began”.
Such flagrant attacks on basic suffrage have incensed Sewell. She pointed to Georgia, where 53,000 voters were purged from the voting rolls in the 2018 elections because their names didn’t exactly match their ID cards.
In the case of Georgia, the voter purge was masterminded by Brian Kemp, then secretary of state, who also happened to be running for governor. Kemp defeated the Democratic candidate, Stacey Abrams, by just 54,000 votes – a margin almost identical to the size of the purge.
“Stacey Abrams is not governor of Georgia today because of voter suppression that took place in that state,” Sewell said. “The Republicans have realized that when you limit access to certain populations and they don’t vote, you have a better chance of winning. That’s the bottom line.”
House schedulers are hoping the bill will pass before the sixth anniversary of the Shelby county ruling on 26 June. It is then almost certain to flounder in the Senate given the fierce opposition of Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell.
But Sewell and her colleagues are playing a long game in the hope that Democrats, should they regain control of the White House and both chambers of Congress as they did most recently in 2008, would then be able to drive HR4 into law. In anticipation of that day, and in expectation that it would then be rigorously opposed by Republicans through the courts, she is working with peers on the judiciary and house administration committees to create a record of voter suppression in culprit states.
“We have to develop a public record that is strong enough to withstand litigation and challenge,” she said.
Under the terms of the bill, some 11 states have been identified as meriting a return to federal oversight of any electoral changes they want to make. Under the modernized formula proposed in the legislation, any state that has had 15 or more violations over the past 25 years – whether by restricting early voting hours, introducing ID-card barriers, making it harder for voters to register, carrying out inaccurate purges of voting lists, or a slew of other trickery – would find themselves back under the beady eye of the US justice department for 10 years.
The 11 states are: Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.
For Sewell, the mission of fixing America’s troubled democracy is personal.
She was born and brought up in Selma, Alabama, in the cradle of the civil rights movement. She was two months old on Bloody Sunday in March 1965 when the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marchers were brutally beaten by police on Edmund Pettus Bridge. She was seven months old when Johnson, in the wake of that march and the national horror it provoked, signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
Amelia Boynton, the late black activist who was bludgeoned on the bridge on Bloody Sunday, had run for Congress from the same 7th congressional district that Sewell now represents. “She lost abominably,” she said. “But she lost in 1964 so that I could win in 2010 and be elected Alabama’s first black congresswoman. So it’s important to me, standing on Amelia’s shoulders, to advance her legacy and pay it forward.”
In the modern era, Sewell has also felt the impact of voter suppression personally. Her father, who died last year, was one of the thousands of black people who found it much more difficult to cast their ballot after Alabama Republicans imposed new restrictions on ID cards that could be used to register to vote.
“This was old tricks in new guises. Today as an African American in Alabama you don’t have to count marbles in jars or recite the US constitution to get the vote, but has your polling station been closed, or has its location been changed without notifying you, or has it been moved so far away you can’t get there because you don’t have a car?”
Sewell has a warning for Republicans who are already gearing up to oppose her: be careful about undermining protections for minority voters, as one day soon the older white voters who form a growing proportion of American conservatives will themselves be the minority.
“I tell my Republican colleagues that the browning of America is coming, and that means the definition of who is a minority will change. Those very protections they are trying to restrict – they are going to need them.”
This article was amended on 25 February 2019 to clarify that Brian Kemp beat Stacey Abrams in the race for Georgia governor. We erroneously said he ran for the US Senate.