by C.C. Campbell-Rock
The U.S. courts are full of lawsuits challenging slick techniques by elected officials designed to dilute the voting power of people of color. Current voter disenfranchisement tactics are part of a concerted effort by white elected officials to diminish the voting power of an increasing brown America.
“If African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans came together in Louisiana, in 10 years we could elect the first Black governor in this state (since Reconstruction),” says Galmon. “These Louisianans collectively voted 39.4 percent in 2008 and 40 percent for Barack Obama in 2012. The same can happen in Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida. About 56 percent of all minorities live in the South. That’s why they are afraid. They see a coalition of minorities as a threat.”
One example of these slick techniques is Donald J. Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. Trump created the entity by an Executive Order in May 2017, which claimed that thousands voted illegally during the 2016 presidential election, without providing any factual evidence.
“The chair of President Trump’s Election Integrity Commission has penned a letter to all 50 states requesting their full voter-roll data, including the name, address, date of birth, party affiliation, last four Social Security number digits and voting history back to 2006 of potentially every voter in the state,” according to The Washington Post.
“The Commission on Election Integrity will study vulnerabilities in voting systems used for federal elections that could lead to improper voter registrations, improper voting, fraudulent voter registrations, and fraudulent voting…The Commission will utilize all available data, including state and federal databases,” according to a press statement.
Louisiana refused to comply with the Election Commission’s request.
Carl Galmon, a local civil rights activist and member of the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute, has sounded the alarm about voting obstacles in the U.S. and Louisiana for decades. From voting roll purges and voter ID laws to gerrymandering to a lack of polling places, Galmon continues to point out tactics to keep African-American and other people of color from voting.
“Voting is a sacred right” Galmon maintains, citing the hundreds of African-Americans who have died for the right to choose who represents them in government. When one considers the power vested in elected officeholders, the ability to make laws—even if the law is unfair, unethical, and oppressive—it becomes clear that voting is critical for maintaining democracy.
In 2015, Galmon began calling attention to a lack of polling sites and particularly in Ponchartrain Park. He points out that the majority of the city’s African-American population lives east of Canal Street and that Ponchartrain Park was the first major black subdivision in New Orleans. Today, the only polling places for the area’s precincts are located on Chef Menteur Highway at the Union Baptist Theological Seminary.
“We only have one place where we all go to vote, on the highway,” says Gretchen Bradford, president of the Pontchartrain Park Neighborhood Association. “Prior to Katrina we had locations at schools and churches, now if you don’t have a car or you’re disabled, it’s inconvenient,” says Bradford. “Over 65 percent of our residents are over 70 years old. Carl is setting the pace for this movement and we appreciate him for that.”
Galmon wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Voting Section/Civil Rights Division about the problem. Citing Louisiana law that mandates that “each parish shall establish one polling place for each precinct,” he says New Orleans City Council and the Clerk of Criminal Court Arthur Morrell, is in violation of the law. He has yet to hear back from the DOJ.
“Under state authority, the Clerk of Criminal Court serves as the custodian of voting machines but the City Council must approve the plan for the placement of voting machines at polling sites. Today Xavier University has four polling sites located in its student union, UNO has six at Ben Franklin High School on its campus. Dillard University and Southern University at New Orleans have no polling places on their campuses,” Galmon adds.
When asked if any request had been made to add polling places in the Ponchartrain Park area, Arthur Morrell, Clerk of Criminal Court, said “No.”
Councilperson Jared Brossett can also request additional polling places in that District D area.
“This is the first time I’m hearing about it,” Brossett has said according to media reports. “I will be more than happy to request additional polling sites if the neighborhood associations and voters in the area put forth that request. But I can’t change or add polling places based on one person’s request.”
Bradford says she will certainly make the request, adding, “I wish I knew that was the process.”
The attack on voting rights can also be found in laws enforced by Louisiana’s Secretary of State Tom Schedler, and others before him, which have worked to dilute the vote of people of color. “Here is a man who was enforcing a 1874 (Grandfather Law) that was declared unconstitutional in 1915,” said Galmon of a recent lawsuit by Southern Poverty Law Center challenging the law that initially barred slaves from voting but was used against naturalized citizens for decades.
“In 2012, Schedler led the fight to keep President Obama’s name off of the ballot in Louisiana, claiming he wasn’t a U.S. citizen. A sitting president. Tom Schedler led the fight in Louisiana to take Section 5 out of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This guy is an avowed racist,” says Galmon.”
The 2016 lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Fair Elections Legal Network (FELN) challenged a state-mandated voting law that discriminated against naturalized citizens. Vietnamese-American, Latino, and Muslims in the greater New Orleans area were forced to jump through hoops to prove they were U.S. citizens before they could vote. There are approximately 72,250 naturalized citizens living in Louisiana.
Louisiana law requires all registrants to declare their citizenship on voter registration forms. Under the law, however, naturalized citizens would later receive a letter demanding that they provide proof of citizenship, such as a certificate of naturalization or a U.S. passport.
“Notice of the requirement was non-existent or buried; nor did the voter registration form state that naturalized citizens had to provide the extra documentation. The website for Louisiana’s Secretary of State also failed to mention the requirement. The obstacle created by the requirement prevented many people from voting for decades and, most recently, in the 26th presidential primary,” the groups said.
The lawsuit was scuttled after legislation repealing the law was passed.
“Louisiana’s state election officials and legislators realized that this 142-year-old discriminatory requirement was legally and morally indefensible, and we applaud their common sense decision to repeal it,” said Jon Sherman, counsel at FELN.
More recently, another victory against voting rights attacks in Louisiana has been claimed.
Leah Aden, senior counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, has been providing updates on a lawsuit that impacts Black voters in Terrebonne Parish. After an eight-week bench trial, a federal court ruled in late August that Louisiana’s voting method for the state court encompassing Terrebonne Parish is unconstitutional and violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because it dilutes Black voting strength and Louisiana intentionally maintained it for that purpose.
The NAACP LDF released a statement following that August ruling that said, in part:
“The court determined that Louisiana’s use of at-large voting for electing five members to the 32nd Judicial District Court (32nd JDC), the state court encompassing Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the U.S. Constitution. This decision paves the way for an end to a nearly 50-year old discriminatory voting practice and for Black voters to have the equal opportunity—for the first time since that state court was created in 1968—to elect their preferred judicial candidates.
In a detailed and meticulous 91-page-ruling, the federal district court “found a strong case of vote dilution.” The court observed that “no Black candidate who has faced opposition in Terrebonne has been elected to an at-large position, and Black candidates have received incredibly minimal support from white voters, a pattern which has been consistent over the course of more than twenty years.”
In the statement, Aden added, “Having a voice in the political process is a central tenet of our democracy. This important decision correctly recognizes the intentionally discriminatory nature of the at-large voting scheme for the 32nd JDC in Terrebonne and ensures that every vote matters.”
Still, that victory has not come without challenge.
“In September, the court began the process for remedying those violations by setting a schedule that permits the parties to brief the court on the remedial process. The court also indicated that it was likely to defer to the Louisiana Legislature, which next regularly meets in March 2018, to initially propose a remedy,” Aden says. “Rather than allow that process to unfold and move towards a just system of voting in Terrebonne, the Governor, and Attorney General seek to prematurely appeal the liability ruling and forestall the remedial process. And, despite facing a billion-dollar deficit, they also have hired an expensive Virginia-based law firm to represent them.”
Aden said the NAACP LDF filed a motion in early October in the Fifth Circuit to dismiss defendants’ attempted appeal, arguing that it’s is not the right time to appeal.
“We also plan to oppose defendants’ attempts to stay the remedial proceedings,” Aden says. “We will share our response once it is filed.”