Voting Rights 'Map of Shame' Director Talks Voter Suppression
Lawyers' Committee executive director Barbara Arnwine explains the fight for the right to vote
Barbara R. Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the national non-profit that provides legal for those experiencing racial discrimination, is helping leading the charge against voter suppression for the upcoming 2012 elections. Through their Voting Rights Project, the Lawyers’ Committee has been in court and online attacking restrictive and punitive voter ID laws, as well as pending bills that are proliferating throughout the country. We spoke with Arnwine about the Lawyers’ Committee “Map of Shame,” which exposes states that have passed anti-voting rights laws, and about their game plan for the road to fair and free elections in 2012.
Loop 21: How has the Map of Shame been received and what are your next steps and end goals for it?
Barbara R. Arnwine: To empower people to use the new interactive version# as an organizational tool so that they can learn about how these laws are changing, and what they can do about it. For example, I just spoke at the NAACP national convention where there were active, civic-minded people yet they were surprised when I showed them the Map of Shame. They shook their heads in disbelief. It’s very clear that the word on this physical assault hasn’t filtered down yet. People find the interactive version very helpful. They’re able to find the worst states and figure out what they need to do, and who they need to contact. There’s a lot of good information that people are using.
Rev. Lennox Yearwood used it at the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice on Saturday. He had the big blowup version of it and spoke about it during his speech. And there were groups not affiliated with us that were passing it around as well. I want to make sure everybody knows about it and understands that so many legislatures are passing these discriminatory laws. Five million voters are already at risk of not being able to vote.
Loop 21: Could you share the current status of any pending lawsuits against battleground states you’re suing?
Arnwine: We currently have a lawsuit filed in federal district court and it’s just now proceeding. We are trying to overturn four provisions that will have an adverse impact on Latino, black, and other minority voters. For instance, they restrict a person’s ability to move from county to county and retain their registration. Early voting is also under assault, and not only in Florida but other places as well.
In many states racial minorities have taken phenomenal advantage of early voting. And that’s why we’re seeing these restrictions. In Texas, we’ve been fighting everything from their redistricting plan to their identification law. Similarly we’re fighting South Carolina’s law. Collectively, there hasn’t been any justification for the basis of these laws. One of the things about the Lawyer’s Committee is that while we fight on defense, we have also been proactive, pushing to register more voters by suing seven states over their failure to enroll in the National Voter Registration Act. Some two million people who were not eligible to vote before now are. And we continue to bring suits against these states, some of which won’t allow those who receive public assistance to register at public assistance centers.
We keep pointing out that there should be automatic universal registration. The entire onus is on the citizen registering to vote. We are one of the few countries that makes it so hard to register to vote. In most countries voter registration is pretty much automatic.
Loop 21: Have elected Democrats reached out in support?
Arnwine: No, not until recently. We are non-partisan, and we are here because we believe in protecting peoples’ civil rights. But this assault is driven by partisan people. That’s clear. People who are virulently anti-civil rights and determined to suppress the vote. We have to make that clear to people so they are just as adamant in protecting their right to vote. We are leading this campaign because we want to make sure people are prepared to fight back. We are also helping organizers in other states and fighting against the pending bills in 23 states.
Loop 21: I spoke with Daneil Tokaji, an election scholar at Ohio State, and one thing he mentioned to me is that Democrats have been far too passive in this fight. What are your thoughts on that?
Arnwine: No doubt about it. The reason people don’t know is because people aren’t talking about it enough. This should not be something people shy away from. It is central to the entire fight about voting rights and the protection of the electorate and the right to vote. It is critical that people see this not as a talking point but the central message. This is not a passive thing; it’s a coordinated, devious, assault.
Loop 21: What would be your message to Republican legislators?
Arnwine: It would be that our nation needs a vibrant democracy. We should be taking every step possible to expand the franchise, not restrict it. All of this legislation is anti-democratic. People who vote tend to be better citizens overall. They feel as though they have a voice. All we’re doing when we take their voice away is creating a society where people don’t have a vested interest. They should be equally vested in this. The biggest targets are minorities and students. It also hurts the poor, the elderly, and the disabled. At first I thought the poor were being hurt as a result of collateral damage. I didn’t know it was a concerted effort on the part of partisans. I didn’t realize it until I read “Registering the Poor to Vote is Un-American” in American Thinker magazine. Can you imagine? An ideology that wants to take one of the most basic civil rights we have simply because one may not have that much income. So we need to get the word out and fight. We have no choice.