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July 03, 2013

Environmentalists, Labor Groups, and Civil Rights Groups Stand Up to Protect Voting Rights

Voting Rights act credit SEIU
(February 27, 2013) Scenes from a rally in front of the Supreme Court where justices were hearing cases on the Voting Rights Act. Washington, DC Photo by David Sachs / SEIU


Protecting and preserving the right to vote is a fundamental part of a healthy political process in the United States. But, since our nation’s founding, discriminatory laws have kept millions from the polls, complicated their ability to register or shut them out of the vote completely. Whether it was laws banning women from the vote, the Jim Crow laws of the American South, or the dozens of restrictive bills proposed in just the last few years to keep voters out of the system, assaults on our right to vote are frighteningly common. And - what’s worse - last week, the Supreme Court gutted one of the most important safeguards against this threat: the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965.

Born in the same age as the struggle for civil rights and racial equality in the U.S., the job of the VRA was to fight discriminatory laws that keep minority voters away from the polls. It ensured that in places where discrimination was rampant the federal government could review the changes made to their voting laws by state and local governments. Last week, however, a 5-4 majority in the Supreme Court struck down a crucial part of that law. That means states where politicians have targeted minority voters may now pass whatever discriminatory laws they want without review.

In less than a week, some states already have.

That’s why, shortly afterwards, a broad coalition of environmental, equality, labor, good government, and civil rights groups announced they would fight back to a crowd of more than 18,000 activists on a tele-town hall meeting.

“We are not weak, we are not downtrodden,” said Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club. “We’re ready to fight because we know that this decision is an attack on the very principle of equality.”

Brune noted that to protect our environment, it is critically important that we protect our democracy.

“The same people fighting the contamination of their air and water from dirty refineries are also fighting laws designed to keep them from the polls.  And in Florida the same people that would be disenfranchised by restrictive registration laws could also lose their homes to raising sea levels in their backyard,” said Brune. “Things are only going to get worse without the
VRA’s protection.”

Voices from the Civil Rights community who have been organizing to counteract the effect of voter suppression laws spoke loud and clear about the importance of the right to vote, as well.

“It is the right which the ability to defend all of our rights is predicated,” said Ben Jealous, President of the NAACP. “And if we are to preserve our rights to live safe, healthy lives and to
preserve the environment in which we live, we must start with that fundamental
right to vote.”

“This issue is very important and personal since one in three Latinos live in areas covered by the Voting Rights Act,” said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza.  “But the protection so many Latinos and other minorities enjoyed under the VRA is no longer there.”  

The coalition of partners hosting the meeting included the NAACP, the Sierra Club, VotoLatino, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Communications Workers of America, the Service Employees International Union, the National Council of La Raza, and Greenpeace USA, among others.

The groups involved committed to ramp up their efforts to fight back against restrictive voting laws and attempts to weaken voting rights.

“The Sierra Club will be mobilizing our members as part of this coalition to demand that Congress take real action to protect every American voter,” said Brune. “That means knocking on doors, making phone calls, lobbying Congress, and telling our friends and neighbors about how important this is – and it means not letting up until we’ve won.”


--Kristen Elmore, Sierra Club Media Team Intern


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