Rev. William Barber: 'Voter Suppression Hacked Our Democracy'

Human Rights

Although alleged Kremlin connections may ultimately sink Trump's Presidency, Rev. William Barber II contends that homegrown voter suppression poses a greater threat to US democracy than Russian election tampering.

"Voter suppression hacked our democracy long before any Russian agents meddled in America's elections," said Barber, who has gained national interest through his vocal opposition to restrictive voting laws.

In fact, Barber recently announced that he will step down as president of the North Carolina NAACP this month to assume a new role as president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach and will co-lead the Poor People's Campaign. That campaign -- to reignite the one begun by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., almost 50 years ago -- seeks to reorder national priorities to address systemic poverty, racism and the war economy. 

Bolstering the effort are recent US Supreme Court decisions that rejected Republican redistricting plans aimed at illegal racial gerrymandering.

States With Highest Poverty

"We're looking at Putin's strongman tactics and not at our own race-based voter suppression tactics," Barber said. "But we have to demand attention. What the states with the highest voter suppression have in common is that they also have the highest rates of poverty."

Barber developed his critique after spending years building a broad-based social justice coalition and leading the Moral Mondays movement that coalesced in 2013 to combat escalating voter suppression tactics in North Carolina. 

In that state, Republican legislators passed restrictions so blatantly designed to keep black voters away from the polls, the courts eventually charged that they targeted African Americans with "almost surgical precision." 

For instance, legislators reduced early-voting opportunities after analyzing data showing poor and minority citizens were significantly more likely to cast their ballots prior to election day. They often did so to avoid missing work or as part of Sunday "Souls to the Polls" drives at black churches. 

In Greensboro, NC -- where student sit-ins to integrate the Woolworth's lunch counter helped catalyze the civil rights movement in the 1960s – authorities cut early-voting sites from 16 to only one. That pattern was repeated around the state where a total of 158 similar sites were eliminated. 

In the name of preventing so-called voter fraud, legislators created photo ID restrictions that disproportionately affected minorities and young people, such as those without driver's licenses. 

Also affected were elders born in rural areas where birth certificates were not issued or were lost. They included many African Americans born in segregated hospitals. Meanwhile, no such ID requirements were applied to absentee ballots -- a voting method used more often by white voters, and one more susceptible to fraud. 

Voter Suppression on Steroids

Although North Carolina's voter ID laws have been labeled the worst in the nation, dozens of other states have passed similar legislation -- particularly after the US Supreme Court's 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That law required federal "preclearance" review before certain states could change their voting laws. 

As Ari Berman, author of Give Us The Ballot reported in the Nation magazine, by the time of the 2016 presidential election, there were 868 fewer polling places in states with a long history of voter discrimination, such as Arizona and Texas. 

Already this year, legislators in 31 states have introduced close to 100 bills to limit access to registration and voting, according to the Voting Laws Roundup 2017 report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU's School of Law. 

"After Shelby they went on steroids in terms of voter suppression legislation," Barber said. "That's the real hacking of our system." 

While Barber and members of the Moral Mondays movement participated in civil disobedience to protest voter suppression in North Carolina, he also led the state's NAACP to fight it in the courts. In one of those cases -- North Carolina v. North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP -- the civil rights organization chalked up a victory. On May 15, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) let stand a lower court ruling against the restrictive voting measures.

"This victory is powerful because it proves they cannot hide under the guise of photo ID," Barber said. "They tried to say it was a voter ID bill, but it was really a monster voter-suppression bill and this case makes that very, very clear." 

He added, "One thing we learned is that when you fight in the courts and in the streets, you win." 

Supreme Court Rulings

Voting-rights advocates also cheered a May 22 SCOTUS decision that rejected North Carolina's 2011 redistricting plan because legislators used race as the basis for drawing boundaries in two congressional districts. That had the effect of diluting African American voting strength in the state. Then on June 5, the court found that 28 state legislative districts were also illegal racial gerrymanders. 

Despite this good news, Barber noted that those elected through the racially biased plan remain in power. The new SCOTUS decision also did not rule in favor of special elections this year to correct the gerrymandering, he said. 

"This ruling means we have an unconstitutionally constituted legislature that has been passing unconstitutional laws," he said. "This legislature is not legitimate because they cheated and would not be in office. We would not have this extremist super majority in the state legislature. We also have people in Congress, who would not be there if we did not have this race-based redistricting plan. Yet they're there."

The Brennan Center for Justice supports Barber's view about the impact of gerrymandering on the makeup of Congress. After analyzing data for the 2016 election, as well as the 2014 and 2012 cycles, the center released its Extreme Maps report, report, which found that "extreme partisan bias in congressional maps account for at least 16-17 Republican seats in the current Congress -- a significant portion of the 24 seats Democrats would need to gain control of the House in 2020." 

In light of this report and other studies on voter suppression, Barber argues that far more public attention needs to be focused on this issue. "It should be troubling to all Americans when extremists deliberately suppress the vote and redistrict in ways that the people elected do not represent the true diversity of the population," he said. "It's undemocratic, it's unconstitutional, and it brings up all kinds of questions regarding the integrity of our elections."

Voter Fraud "Infinitesimally Small"

Some of those questions about election integrity are being argued in the courts -- such as the legal fights over redistricting in Texas and the decision by the Supreme Court to hear a case this fall that will determine if the state of Ohio wrongfully removed thousands of voters from its rolls prior to the 2016 election. 

Other arguments are roiling in coffee shops and the Twitterverse as President Donald J. Trump uses his unfounded claims about "the millions of people who voted illegally" to justify creation of a Presidential Commission on Election Integrity to investigate alleged voter fraud. 

That task may prove difficult because even Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the new commission's vice chair, has found that this type of fraud is infinitesimally small. 

As US News and World Report noted in an article published this past January, "When … Kris Kobach, a longtime proponent of voter suppression efforts, reviewed 84 million votes cast in 22 states in a search for double voting, only 14 instances of fraud were referred for prosecution, which amounts to a 0.00000017 percent fraud rate."

"This commission is a distraction," Barber said. "It's a disgrace that in a democracy where it's been proven time and time again that voter fraud is non-existent that we would allow our tax dollars to be used to chase a ghost."

Whether efforts to suppress votes come from executive actions at the White House or legislation in state houses, Barber counsels voting-rights advocates to continue pressing to counteract them. "The strategy remains the same," he said. 

He continued, "You expose what they're doing through direct action, make sure the public is aware of them -- and make sure these laws are examined under the microscope of the constitution." 

"Much of this sinister work done in these state houses is not talked about," Barber added. "That is why I say it is more dangerous than Russian hacking. Going forward they have to know that for anything they pass, we will take them to court. They will not be able to hide in the shadows."

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