By Marc H. Morial
“The lessons of history are clear: when elected officials have to take a stand, when they have to go on record and show the American people where they are on the issues, then the right side of history ultimately prevails. I believe the same will hold true in this fight to protect our Democracy. The forces that oppose democracy today are strong, but as we’ve seen in recent history, the resolve of the American people is stronger.”
– Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, 2022 State of Black America
Gerrymandering. Voter suppression. Malicious misinformation. Intimidation.
Politicians have used these tactics for generations to exclude voters of color and to give their parties an edge. But never before has the nation seen such an insidious and coordinated campaign to obliterate the very principle of “one person, one vote” from the political process.
On Tuesday, April 12, the National Urban League’s 2022 State of Black America® report, “Under Siege: The Plot to Destroy Democracy,” reveals the extent of this campaign. In response, the National Urban League is relaunching its highly-effective civic engagement and voter education campaign, “Reclaim Your Vote.”
Using data and analysis from our research partner, The Brennan Center for Justice, the State of Black America examines the astonishing reversal of a two-century moral arc that has bent, if slowly and unevenly, toward universal suffrage.
From the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, when only land-owning white men could vote, to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the United States has seen a steady, if unevenly enforced, expansion of the franchise. By 1856 property ownership requirements were eliminated in all states, giving suffrage to most white men. The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, guaranteed Black Americans the right to vote, though the rise of Jim Crow restrictions like poll taxes and literacy tests effectively disenfranchised Southern Blacks for most of the next century. The 19th Amendment in 1920 extended the franchise to women – in practice only white women – until the Voting Rights Act outlawed most Jim Crow restrictions.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act prohibited states and counties with a history of voter suppression from making changes to voting laws until “favorable determination” had been obtained, either through administrative review by the Attorney General, or after a lawsuit before the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. By overwhelming bipartisan majorities, Congress reauthorized the preclearance provision four times – in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006, each time signed by a Republican president. “Republicans don’t want to be branded as hostile to minorities,” groused anti-civil rights activist Edward Blum, an architect of the Shelby case.
Thus, anti-civil rights activists abandoned hope of Congressional action to weaken the Voting Rights Act and turned to the courts. The earthquake that was Shelby was preceded by foreshocks like 2006’s Purcell v. Gonzales, which allowed Arizona to circumvent Section 5 because the Court of Appeals decision to block Arizona’s restrictive voter ID law came too close to an upcoming election. Crawford v. Marion County Election Board in 2008, which allowed Indiana to enact a strict voter I.D. law, reversed the Court’s longstanding opposition to voting laws that serve no purpose other than to restrict the franchise.
A decade and a half after the last reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, Senate Republicans – some of whom voted for that reauthorization – no longer are concerned about being “branded as hostile to minorities.” Republicans united to filibuster voting rights legislation five times in the current session alone, despite the fact that seven in ten Americans support the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and three in five support the Freedom to Vote Act.
The report’s release was at Atlanta University Center in Georgia, a state that has been ground zero for the tactics discussed in the report. Just recently, Georgia lawmakers passed a bill that would give new election policing powers to the state’s bureau of investigation – yet another attempt to intimidate election workers and voters.
The report also reveals the 2022 Equality IndexTM, the National Urban League’s semi-annual calculation of the social and economic status of African Americans relative to whites. And, for the first time, For the first time, State of Black America includes a companion poll, the Pulse of Black America. Conducted by Benenson Strategy Group, the survey reveals Black Americans’ attitudes toward voting and democracy, as well as social and racial justice, police violence, economic opportunity and other issues.
The full report is available at StateOfBlackAmerica.org.