While attending the Essence Festival in New Orleans over the weekend, I was fortunate to meet Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), who was there to tape a segment on voting rights for the Melissa Harris Perry Show. NAACP LDF was the primary counsel in the Shelby v. Holder case concerning the Voting Rights Act and its attorney Debo Adegbile argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court’s ruling ended the coverage formula for Section Five, which was the main active ingredient for the Voting Rights Act, and now Congress is expected to create a new coverage formula, if that’s possible. In our talk, Ifill discusses what the new way forward will be for LDF, civil rights organizations and voters in general now that the Voting Rights Act has been compromised.
Colorlines: What is the NAACP LDF’s new strategy for protecting voting rights in a post-Shelby world?
Sherrilyn Ifill: We have a three point plan. First we need to get the information as we prepare our litigation response. The Voting Rights Act was not itself overturned. We need to hear about discriminatory voting changes that are happening and we need the people to be our eyes and ears. We need them to write us and tell us about what they see happening in their communities. We’ve set up an email account firstname.lastname@example.org where they can tell us about whatever they see happening so we can add that to our litigation.
Secondly, you have to be in touch with your Congressperson and telling them that [creating a new Section Five coverage formula] is a priority and it’s something they must do. You have to push them on this no matter where you live. It doesn’t matter if you lived in [Section Five] covered jurisdcitions or not. And thirdly you have to show up August 28 for the March on Washington because mass mobilization is what’s going to move Congress. We have to move on the legislation side and on the litigation side to keep the pressure on. You can see the response that happened right after the Supreme Court decision, when you heard all these state officials saying what they were going to do. They are moving forward we have to move forward also.
Colorlines: In the meanwhile, what other federal voting laws are you using to protect voters?
Ifill: A jurisdiction can be bailed in after a finding of discrimination under Section Two for intentional discrimination. We just won a big case against Louisiana for their failure to comply with the Motor Voter law, where they are supposed to be registering voters at social service agencies.
Colorlines: Interesting you bring up Louisiana. I’ve been reading stories saying that Louisiana won’t be affected by the Shelby decision because it already had a voter ID law.
Ifill: Between 1982 and 2003 the Justice Department had to object to over half of the voting changes submitted by Louisiana parishes. This was the information that was before Congress when they reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006. Lousiana had not had a redistricting plan approved for preclearance until the one after this recent 2010 census. Lousiana was a repeat offender on redistricting. 33 school board election changes were denied by the Justice Department between 1982 and 2003. People have to understand that this is about school boards, police juries, water districts, town councils and local jurisdictions, and that’s actually where most of the mischief happens.
Colorlines: How does the Shelby decision impact the coming 2014 midterm elections?
Ifill: The timing is pretty important because just as we are preparing for another election year we hear all of these jurisdictions talking about implementaiton of voter ID laws. What we were able to do before the 2012 elections was get into court using Section Five — the best example of this being South Carolina, which adopted a voter ID law. We brought a Section Five action against the law and in the course of the litigation they kept changing the law, making it less and less onerous, making the ID more available and providing more opportunities to voters to offer rationale for why they couldn’t get ID. Ultimatley the court that approved the voter ID law that South Carolina developed but said they couldn’tt impose it on the 2012 elections. So here we are a year later, and we don’t have Section Five available to us. In that case Section Five exposed what was wrong with the South Carolina voter ID law. Remember, it’s not like all voter ID laws are bad or wrong. In fact, the Department of Justice precleared most of the voter ID laws submitted to them. It’s the laws that are onerous, the laws that don’t provide opportunities for people who are poor, who live in rural areas, for voters who don’t have government-issued ID, and don’t have the means to get it because they don’t have documents like birth certificates — it’s those laws that are problematic. Thats what Section Five helped us smoke out.
Colorlines: Last week, LDF participated in a chorus of organizations representing a broad array of issues — environment, lgbtq, labor and immigration — pledging to fight for voting rights. How will the coalition hold together and remain accountable to that pledge?
Ifill: I think its hard for peoople to see how much these groups really do support each other and work together. What we need, though, is a much more vocal and apparent engagement with the issues. It’s not just knowing that we’re all part of a coalition or just names on a list. We need lgbt activists, we need environmental activists, we need the workers rights folks all to have the language, the words of voting rights in their mouths. This, right now, is the biggest threat to equality and democratic participation in this country. Anybody who cares about those two things, in whatever their area of specialty, should be engaged in that language and should be using that language. So, as we build up to August 28, this is not a black people’s march. This is a march for people who care about equality and justice and we recognize that this is a marquee issue — not the only issue — but a marquee issue within the portfolio of issues that speak to issues of equality, justice and democratic participaiton. We all have to be comfortable with the language and feel like its our issue, that it’s owned by everybody. Obviously there are people who have the expertise who are going to take the lead, but that’s what has to happen to really penetrate into every arena of the civil rights justice movement, and to make everyone understand this issue is a priority.