Urban America Forward | “Democracy and New Struggles for Representation”

“The real issue for urban America is the Electoral College; it comes to haunt us every four years.” – Juan Cartagena, LatinoJustice PRLDEF

“We have to learn how to bridge the gap between those of us who are civil rights advocates and who work on voting to get those who don’t traditionally care about voting to come to the table.” – Nicole Austin-Hillery, Brennan Center for Justice

“Imagine what the effect of preclearance [under the Voting Rights Act] in education would achieve toward educational opportunity.” – Tom Saenz, MALDEF

In a nation of rapidly changing demographics, racial anxiety is resulting in a contraction of democracy, with state laws and legal jurisprudence restricting access to the ballot. Equal political power remains an elusive and an ever-important goal for historically disenfranchised communities. The civil rights community must not only defend against restrictions placed upon the right to vote, but promote cultural change and experimentation that will form the bedrock of a twenty-first century, inclusive democracy. 

  • Young people are galvanized and applying vital civic pressure to the political system; their impact is shaping the policy landscape on immigration and police accountability, among other issues.
  • In the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder, the Court struck down Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, eliminating the provision that required nine states with histories of discrimination in voting to submit voting changes for preclearance.
  • Redistricting remains at the forefront of the civil rights frontier. Evenwell vs Abbot, for which the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in December 2015, would compel the drawing of election districts on the basis of voters, not people, which would shift districts out of cities into rural areas. When immigrants and the formally incarcerated in cities are denied the right to vote, cities are systematically disenfranchised in the division of state funding.
  • As of February 2016, 33 states enforced voter identification requirements; 18 states require voters to present photo identification, while 15 accept other forms of identification.[1]
  • In 48 states, a felony conviction can result in the loss of an individual’s voting rights. 5.8 million Americans are unable to vote owing to state felony disenfranchisement policies.[2]

Below are the overarching themes and the corresponding policy recommendations that emerged during the Roundtable Series. 


Overarching Themes

Race matters in electoral politics. Under the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act, states with histories of discrimination were required to submit their voting changes to the Department of Justice for federal review. Just days after the Supreme Court struck down that essential provision in the Voting Rights Act, Texas passed the most onerous and restrictive voter identification law in the country, and North Carolina followed suit by reducing early voting days, ending same-day registration, and eliminating the preregistration of high school students.[3]

Be bold. We need aspirational, not just defensive, postures in championing an inclusive democracy.

Fight for equal political power not just equal access. Equal political power requires action at the federal, state, and grassroots levels to improve eligibility, registration, and voter turnout. The civil rights community must own the conversation about voting modernization.

Some positions should not be elected positions. A comprehensive approach to voting rights and struggles for representation includes recognizing that certain positions—such as judges and sheriffs–should be insulated from the political process.

Policy Recommendations

Enact a federal statutory right to vote. A campaign for a far-reaching federal statutory right to vote enacted by Congress could preempt state voter regulations that would restrict the right to vote and provide a galvanizing point for communities to rally around.

Rehabilitate the Voting Rights Act. An urban agenda should support two bills currently pending before Congress that addresses the dismantling of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act: The Voting Rights Amendment Act, and the Voting Rights Advancement Act.  Among other protections, the bills would require jurisdictions with a recent record of repeated Voting Rights Act violations to preclear election law changes and expand the current “bail-in” procedures, which allow courts to subject jurisdictions to preclearance.[4]

Abolish the Electoral College. We should advocate for a Constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College; the inability of the popular vote to elect the presidents is a concern every four years.

Pursue universal voter registration while being mindful of the racialization of the issue and arguments related to fraud.

Advocate for state legislation to expand the right to vote. Viable options exist in states to expand of the right to vote, including models in California and Oregon.

Models and Tactics

Automatic voter registration measures have been proposed in at least 17 states. In October 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown signed motor voter legislation that would automatically register any Californian to vote who renews or receives a new driver’s license. The law removes barriers to voting for the 6.6 million eligible California citizens who are unregistered. Oregon passed similar legislation in March of 2015.


[1] National Conference of State Legislatures, "Voter Identification Requirements|Voter ID Laws," (Washington, DC: NCSL, January 4, 2016), http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/voter-id.aspx.

[2] The Sentencing Project, “Fact Sheet: Trends In U.S. Corrections.” 

[3] The North Carolina law requires specific photo identification to vote; it ended same-day voter registration, requiring voters to register 20 days in advance; limited early voting from 17 to 10 days; ended preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds; and stopped counting votes cast by those who mistakenly voted in the wrong precinct, even if the voter did so because a poll worker made a mistake. See R. Hasen, “This is Why the Voting Rights Act is on Trial in North Carolina,” Washington Post, July 15, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/07/31/this-is-why-the-voting-rights-act-is-on-trial-in-north-carolina/.


[4] In January 2014, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), and John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced the bipartisan Voting Rights Amendment and reintroduced it in February 2015. In June 2015, Senate and House leaders Sens. Patrick Leahy (D- Vt.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.),  Chris Coons (D-Del.), Cory Booker, (D-NJ), and Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), and Judy Chu (D-Calif.) introduced the Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA) of 2015. See Brennan Center for Justice, “The Voting Rights Act: A Resource Page” (New York: Brennan Center, August 5, 2014),  http://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/voting-rights-act-resource-page. For more, see Congressman James Sensenbrenner, “Sensenbrenner, Leahy and Conyers Lead Bipartisan, Bicameral Introduction of Legislation to Restore the Voting Rights Act.” Press release. (Washington, DC: U.S. Congress, January 16, 2014), http://sensenbrenner.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=367081.