The Fight for Voting Rights
November 2, 2020
The Fight for Voting Rights: Nonprofits’ Role in Creating Awareness, Circulating Resources and Providing Polling Stations
By Elan Joseph, CRE Consultant
Growing up as a young Black man in the metro Atlanta area, I was instilled with a keen appreciation of the Civil Rights Movement and the socioeconomic advances it made for Black people in this country. At least once a year, my family would make the pilgrimage to The King Center downtown to visit the birthplace, and final resting place, of the late Civil Rights Leader. Within the center, visitors are able to walk through exhibits that vividly portray the lives of Black Americans under Jim Crow segregation, the racist vitriol that protesters had to endure in order to secure their civil rights, the passage of acts such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the assassination of Dr. King and the effects of his legacy. Even though Dr. King’s story came to an untimely end, I was always in awe of the positive impact that he had on the lives of Black people in American society and incredibly grateful that my family and I were living in a post-Jim Crow America. However, as I soon learned, just as Dr. King and the leaders of his generation worked for the socioeconomic advancement of Black people, there are those today that are actively working to undermine their legacy and safeguard the vestiges of white supremacy. As this generation carries on the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, nonprofits that serve BIPOC communities are uniquely positioned to contribute to the fight to dismantle voter suppression. These nonprofits can and should focus resources towards raising awareness about voter suppression within these communities, connecting community members with voter registration resources and, when possible, volunteering their office space as polling sites.
We are currently at an inflection point in the history of our country as America once again reckons with its history of—and present day continuation of—racial injustice. Voting has been a hot topic in the news cycle given that this is an election year, and politicians are currently divided as to how Americans can vote safely whilst minimizing the chances of “voter fraud.” In addition to concerns regarding voting in a pandemic, voting has also reemerged in the national discourse due to recent instances of voter suppression in Georgia that caught national headlines in 2018 and 2020. Upon closer inspection, these seemingly isolated incidents restricted to one state reveal a much more alarming trend of the systematic disenfranchisement of black voters. As Time Magazine reporter Justin Worland notes in his article “America’s Long Overdue Awakening to Systemic Racism”, “…black voters are four times as likely as white voters to report difficulties voting or engaging in politics than their white counterparts, in part because of laws that even today are designed to keep them for exercising their basic democratic rights; millions more have been disenfranchised because of felony convictions…”. This alarming statistic is not widespread knowledge. However, nonprofits that serve BIPOC communities are well equipped to disseminate this information and support these communities in efforts to encourage their senators to create change.
Ensuring equitable voting rights for everyone requires an understanding of what ushered in this new age of voter suppression in the first place. Most Americans are familiar with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was the result of a long, hard-fought political battle by civil rights leaders to ensure the right to vote for African Americans across the country who had been disenfranchised by an amalgamation of exclusionary tools such as literacy tests and poll taxes. However, most Americans are unaware that this very same Voting Rights Act has been gutted within the last decade as part of a concerted effort to restrict the constitutional rights of Black people. In 2013, Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act was declared unconstitutional in Shelby v Holder by the Supreme Court of the United States. This act rendered ineffective Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which was designed to create federal oversight over counties and states of the country that had a history of disenfranchising Black communities by requiring federal preclearance on the passing of any new requirements concerning the right to vote. Section 4(b)’s unconstitutionality was predicated on it being outdated. In the words of Chief Justice John Roberts in Shelby v Holder, “…Congress did not use that record to fashion a coverage formula grounded in current conditions. It instead re-enacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relation to the present day.”
Unfortunately, this could not have been further from the truth. The Supreme Court’s amnesia and desire to view racism—more explicitly, white supremacy—as a relic of the past has ushered in a new age of voter suppression. As noted by American Public Media, Georgia, a state that was formerly subject to federal preclearance has now implemented. “… all five of the most common voter-suppression tactics currently in use: voter ID laws, proof of citizenship requirements, purges, cuts in early voting, and polling-site closures.” Other states use a combination of tactics ranging from voter registration restrictions to voter purges, to felony disenfranchisement to further the goals of voter suppression. According to the ACLU, the state of Iowa, for example, has instituted, “…a system of permanent disenfranchisement, paired with the most disproportionate incarceration rate of Black people in the nation, has resulted in the disenfranchisement of an estimated one in four voting-age black men.”
Thankfully, there are already legislative and policy efforts being made to rectify this gross error, most notably H.R.1 and the Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA), recently renamed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act after the late Civil Rights icon. Although unlikely to pass amidst the current political climate, the election of people invested in ensuring that every person has equal access to the right to vote could push these measures through. This is where nonprofits can step in to support:
- Create Awareness and Educate: Nonprofits that serve BIPOC communities hold a unique position within the communities they serve and are well connected to either their target population or CBOs within the community. They have ample experience and resources when it comes to connecting with these communities and should use this experience to create widespread awareness about what is at stake, as upcoming elections in the near future could determine the future of voter suppression in America.
- Circulate Voter Registration Resources: In addition to raising awareness about the gravity of the issue, nonprofits that serve BIPOC communities should leverage their networks by sending out voter registration resources and tools to the eligible constituents within their network to register for and take action to vote. These nonprofits can direct folks to https://vote.gov. Additionally, the ACLU has a plethora of resources about voting rights, as well as a pre-filled link for constituents to contact their senators to pass VRAA.
- Volunteer Office Spaces as Polling Sites: Since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby v Holder, 1,688 voting precincts have been shut down across 13 states within the last decade. Given the prolonged effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are currently many empty office spaces around the country both within and outside the nonprofit sector. Through partnering with local county elections offices, these empty buildings and office spaces could be converted into polling sites for voters which are especially vital for nonprofits based in BIPOC communities given the disproportionate effect of polling-site closures within these communities. There is a great resource here from the AAPD that outlines the process of contacting your local county election office to convert your space into a polling site. This could also be an extremely useful method.
America’s history is the story of a nation founded on white supremacist values. Since its conception, the nation has made both anti-racist progress and racist progress. Each victory for civil rights and racial justice has been won not only through the work of larger than life activists but through the work of everyday people who decided that something is wrong and took action. Nonprofits that serve BIPOC communities, such as many of those with which CRE partners, have a unique obligation to get involved, as this fight to create an anti-racist present implicates both them and the communities they serve. Indeed, nonprofits are no stranger to efforts around civic engagement, as is evidenced by CRE’s partnership with the New York City government to drive Census awareness and registration. Nonprofits that serve BIPOC communities need to take a multipronged approach that extends beyond what is articulated in our mission and vision statements and into ensuring that BIPOC communities’ ability to vote is once again enshrined as a constitutional right. In the words of John Lewis, “The vote is precious. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democratic society, and we must use it. And so you must go out all across America and tell young people, and people not so young, tell all of us: Vote. The vote is powerful.” The nonprofit sector is often challenged to do more and, at this pivotal moment, nonprofits can, and must, maximize the resources at their disposal. Through raising awareness of Shelby v Holder and its consequences, circulating voter registration resources, and working with local county elections offices to transform their spaces into polling sites, nonprofits that serve BIPOC communities can take a bold step in advancing a future that is grounded in racial equity.
 II, Vann R. Newkirk. “The Georgia Governor’s Race Has Brought Voter Suppression Into Full View.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 7 Nov. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/11/how-voter-suppression-actually-works/575035/.
 Fowler, Stephen. “’It Was Very Chaotic’: Long Lines, Voting Machine Issues Plague Georgia Primary.” NPR, NPR, 9 June 2020, www.npr.org/2020/06/09/873054620/long-lines-voting-machine-issues-plague-georgia-primary.
 Worland, Justin. “America’s Long Overdue Awakening on Systemic Racism.” Time, Time, 11 June 2020, time.com/5851855/systemic-racism-america/.
 “Section 4 Of The Voting Rights Act.” The United States Department of Justice, 5 May 2020, www.justice.gov/crt/section-4-voting-rights-act.
 “About Section 5 Of The Voting Rights Act.” The United States Department of Justice, 11 Sept. 2020, www.justice.gov/crt/about-section-5-voting-rights-act.
 Caputo, Angela, et al. “How a Massive Voter Purge in Georgia Affected the 2018 Election.” How a Massive Voter Purge in Georgia Affected the 2018 Election | After the Purge | APM Reports, APM Reports, 22 June 2020, www.apmreports.org/story/2019/10/29/georgia-voting-registration-records-removed.
 “ACLU News & Commentary.” American Civil Liberties Union, www.aclu.org/news/civil-liberties/block-the-vote-voter-suppression-in-2020/.
 Kendi, Ibram X. “Racial Progress Is Real. But So Is Racist Progress.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Jan. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/01/21/opinion/sunday/racial-progress-is-real-but-so-is-racist-progress.html.
 Strauss, Valerie. “The Prescient Commencement Speech Rep. John Lewis Gave in 2016.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 18 Apr. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/01/16/the-prescient-commencement-speech-rep-john-lewis-gave-in-2016/.