Posts from Kira Lerner

These are the Floridians trying to overturn a Jim Crow-era disenfranchisement law

Kira Lerner Political Reporter, Think Progress

Marquis McKenzie lost his right to vote before he’d even earned it.

Late one evening more than a decade ago, he held up a stranger at gunpoint. It was a crime that McKenzie, who was just 14 at the time, admits in retrospect didn’t make much sense.

“Only thing I got from him was a wallet and a cell phone and I had a wallet and cell phone of my own in my pocket,” he said. But he was young and immature, and wanted to prove himself on the streets. A teenage brain isn’t completely developed and he said he didn’t fully understand right from wrong.

The state of Florida didn’t see it that way. Prosecutors charged McKenzie as an adult. He was convicted and sent to prison but continued his education behind bars, ultimately earning a GED. When he was released for good behavior in 2008 after serving two years, he was determined to turn his life around.

His hope for a fresh start hit an immediate roadblock, however, when he learned that because of his criminal record, he would never be allowed to vote. “It’s hard to be back into society if you’re not going to be treated like a citizen,” said McKenzie, now 28 years old.

Florida is one of just four states that permanently bars people with felony convictions from voting. More than 1.6 million citizens are prohibited from casting a ballot in Florida, which excludes more people from the democratic process than any state in America. Like McKenzie, many of those affected are African American. One third of Florida’s 1.6 million disenfranchised are black. Nearly one in four black adults in the state is denied the right to vote.

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Georgia GOP gubernatorial candidate sued for blocking 53,000 voter registrations

Kira Lerner Political Reporter, Think Progress

Two voting rights groups filed a lawsuit Thursday accusing Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R) of unlawfully blocking 53,000 voter registrations ahead of the November election. Kemp is currently in a tightly-contested race against Democrat Stacey Abrams, who would be the first black woman governor in the United States.

Using an “exact match” voter registration system, Kemp’s office flagged tens of thousands of voter registration forms where the voter’s information does not exactly match the information on file by the Department of Driver Services or Social Security Administration databases. In many cases, the error was as small as a missing hyphen. According to an AP report this week, 70 percent of the registrations placed in a “pending” status belong to African American voters.

“Kemp has been a driving force behind multiple voter suppression efforts throughout the years in Georgia,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the groups behind the lawsuit. “If there is one person in Georgia who knows that the ‘Exact Match’ scheme has a discriminatory impact on minority voters, it’s Brian Kemp because we successfully sued him over a mirror policy in 2016.”

The lawsuit, filed by the Lawyers’ Committee and the Campaign Legal Center, alleges that the exact match system violates the Voting Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act, and the U.S. Constitution. As Clarke noted, legal groups sued Kemp over the same issue before the 2016 presidential election, and a court ordered Kemp to restore the more than 40,000 registrations he put on hold that year.

“Georgia’s ‘exact match’ protocol has resulted in the cancellation or rejection of tens of thousands of voter registration applications in the past,” Danielle Lang, senior legal counsel with the Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement. “The reintroduction of this practice, which is known to be discriminatory and error-ridden, is appalling.”

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This Florida woman had to travel 10 hours by bus to have her voting rights restored

Kira Lerner Political Reporter, Think Progress

On Monday, Takesha Tyler took a ten-hour bus ride from Miami to Tallahassee, Fla. She had requested three days off work without pay from Target, where she unloads trucks, and spent about $450 between the roundtrip bus and hotel, all to be in the state capital for less than 24 hours.

“I’m just hoping for a good outcome,” she told ThinkProgress. “I don’t mind the money if it means that I’m able to vote. Then all of it will be well worth it.”

Tyler, who is now 46 years old, lost her right to vote more than two decades ago when she was convicted of selling drugs. Florida is one of four states that permanently bars anyone with a felony conviction from voting for life, unless they are able to petition the governor for clemency.

On Tuesday morning, Florida’s Clemency Board considered Tyler’s petition to restore her civil rights. Gov. Rick Scott (R) and the other GOP members of the board asked a few questions about her job and criminal history before agreeing to grant her voting rights.

“I’m relieved. Really relieved,” she told ThinkProgress Tuesday afternoon, yelling to be heard over the noise of the highway from a bus on her way back home. “This fight is over. I’m tearing up thinking about it all over again. It brings joy to know you’re back into society again.”

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Majority-black Georgia county rejects plan to close 7 of its 9 polling places

Kira Lerner Political Reporter, Think Progress

The election board in majority-black Randolph County, Georgia voted Friday morning to reject a proposal to close seven of its nine polling locations before the November election.

The vote comes shortly after the county announced it had fired the elections consultant, Mike Malone, who conceived of the plan. Malone was initially hired to temporarily fill the role of an elections supervisor, but he undertook efforts to close all but two of the county’s polling precincts instead.

The racial implications of the plan generated immense backlash. The county is over 61 percent black, and one of the polling locations that would be shuttered serves a precinct where more than 95 percent of voters are African American. Before the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, the closures would most likely have been blocked by the Department of Justice.

Voting advocates, including representatives from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, attended Friday’s voting, vowing to file a lawsuit if the county approved the plan.

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Meet the lesbian Native American woman running for Congress in Kansas

Kira Lerner Political Reporter, Think Progress

Like mixed martial arts, running for Congress involves patience, determination, and the ability to fight without taking attacks personally.

Sharice Davids, a professional MMA fighter, Native American, openly gay attorney, and first-time candidate made that comparison on Sunday, just two days before she will have face other Democrats in a tightly contested race for Kansas’ 3rd congressional seat. Early this year, Davids said she looked at the field of candidates challenging Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS) and found there was nobody who looked like her on the ballot.

“We need more people who look like the rest of the country to be running for office,” Davids, who had a White House fellowship until the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, told ThinkProgress.

Davids said she saw that there were no leading women in the race for the district that includes Kansas City and its suburbs, which includes one county that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. She also recognized that she would be the only candidate with federal policy experience and the only candidate with a distinctive background.

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North Carolina Republicans renew voter suppression efforts that were struck down by Supreme Court

Kira Lerner Political Reporter, Think Progress

In 2013, just weeks after the Supreme Court gutted the landmark Voting Rights Act, North Carolina passed one of the worst voter suppression laws in the country. As part of a long list of new requirements, the law forced voters to show one of a short list of acceptable forms of photo identification to cast a ballot.

That law was overturned by the Supreme Court, which found last year that it targeted “African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”

But North Carolina’s Republican Party was not dissuaded. On Monday, the five-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision, the state general assembly voted 74-44 to move forward with a renewed voter ID bill that could impose exactly the same restrictions on the state’s voters.

“We’ve been down this path before,” Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, told ThinkProgress.

More than the required 60 percent of the state’s lower chamber voted in favor of an amendment Monday night that would add a voter ID requirement to the state constitution. If given another favorable vote in the House this week and then if passed by the Senate, North Carolina voters will decide on the amendment in November. The bill does not specify which forms of ID would be accepted or any other details about the potential law. The GOP hopes it would have time to pass the law between November and January, when the party might lose its supermajority.

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This is how Florida makes it nearly impossible for ex-felons to get their voting rights restored

Kira Lerner Political Reporter, Think Progress

Ladetra Johnson stood up straight behind the lectern in the cabinet room of the Florida State Capitol Building Thursday morning, holding the hand of her 5-year-old daughter. Dressed in a frilly white dress, the young girl smiled as Gov. Rick Scott (R) and his cabinet first complimented her outfit, then questioned Johnson on how she has rehabilitated her life since her felony conviction.

Johnson told the governor that she owns a salon, is enrolled in school to get a professional license, and works part-time at a beauty supply store.

Without further questions, the four members of the clemency board — Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Adam H. Putnam, and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — agreed to restore Johnson’s civil rights. The young mother will now be able to vote in a state that disenfranchises more than 1.5 million people for their felony convictions.

After hearing the good news, Johnson asked if she and her family could take a photo with the board. Though they had just said they wanted to keep the schedule moving — there were more than 100 people being considered for various forms of clemency on Thursday — the governor agreed. “How can you say no to that girl,” Scott asked.

Johnson left the room happy, but a majority of the 101 people seeking some form of clemency — including 68 specifically asking for the restoration of their civil rights — did not. Florida has one of the strictest felon disenfranchisement laws in the country, requiring anyone with a felony conviction to apply for clemency from the governor in order to restore their right to vote. The process has become even more difficult since Scott took office in 2011 and instated a five to seven year waiting period before people like Johnson could even petition for their rights. The board meets just four times a year, and just a small fraction of the thousands of people who apply for clemency are even considered.

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The Supreme Court just cleared the way for the mass disenfranchisement of voters

Kira Lerner Political Reporter, Think Progress

With its ruling Monday upholding Ohio’s practice of removing infrequent voters from its rolls, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for the mass disenfranchisement of low-income, minority voters across the country.

In a 5-4 ruling, Justice Samuel Alito found that the National Voter Registration Act does not prevent Ohio from purging from the rolls voters who do not participate in federal elections for two years. If inactive voters do not respond to a mailer asking them to verify their address and do not vote for two more years, they are purged from the rolls.

The ruling will have implications beyond Ohio.

“Today’s decision threatens the ability of voters to have their voices heard in our elections,” said Stuart Naifeh, senior counsel at Demos, which challenged the state’s practices.

Six other states — Georgia, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — use similar practices to remove voters from the rolls if they fail to vote. A total of 17 GOP-controlled states signed onto a brief supporting Ohio’s position, indicating that they would be interested in using a similar list-maintenance procedure if it’s found to be constitutional.

With the approval of the Supreme Court, more states are likely to begin discriminatory purges like Ohio’s, and more states will likely remove a disproportionate number minority, low-income, and housing-insecure voters — people who are more likely to support Democrats. Those voters are more likely to move frequently and not respond to mailers asking them to verify their registration status.

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North Carolina tries to revive its discriminatory voter ID law as constitutional amendment

Kira Lerner Political Reporter, Think Progress

Two years after federal courts struck down North Carolina’s discriminatory voter ID law, Republican lawmakers are trying to revive their strict requirements by passing an amendment to the state’s constitution.

In an effort to stop the lawmakers from reinstating the law, which the U.S. Supreme Court said last year targeted “African-Americans with almost surgical precision,” advocates are going after two unlikely targets: Apple and Amazon.

If the voter ID amendment passes with 60 percent in both chambers — which is likely given the GOP’s supermajority in the legislature — voters would decide on the issue on the November ballot. 

Though courts could also invalidate this new form of the voter ID law, opponents don’t want to take any chances. So voting advocates affiliated with Color of Change, a civil rights organization, launched a campaign this week against the two tech giants, pressuring them to threaten not to move their headquarters to North Carolina if the the state intends to enforce a voter ID law.

“Amazon and Apple are two of the biggest corporations in American and they’re looking at moving to a state that legitimately is trying to block black people from voting,” said Matthew Williams, a Christian musician. Williams grew up in North Carolina and recently launched a petition calling on Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook, the CEOs of Amazon and Apple, to “say no to North Carolina’s racist attacks on voting rights.”

“Amazon and Apple are two of the biggest corporations in American and they’re looking at moving to a state that legitimately is trying to block black people from voting”

Both Apple and Amazon have been eyeing Raleigh, the state capital, as a potential location for new headquarters, and a new report puts the city as a frontrunner among 20 finalist locations vying for the coveted Amazon HQ2.

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Religious leaders arrested in Capitol while demanding restoration of Voting Rights Act

Kira Lerner Political Reporter, Think Progress

Revs. Jesse Jackson, William Barber, and other prominent religious leaders were arrested for demonstrating in the U.S. Capitol on Monday, demanding the restoration of the Voting Rights Act and the end of racial gerrymandering.

Dozens of others were also arrested across the country as part of the second week of protests organized by the revival of the Poor People’s Campaign, a movement that originated in 1968 with Martin Luther King Jr. at the helm. The campaign, a coalition of progressives and faith-based organizations, plans to hold demonstrations and risk arrest every Monday for six weeks.

At a rally ahead of the demonstration in the Capitol Rotunda, Barber drew a connection between systemic racism and policies that suppress voters of color.

“America’s democracy was under attack long before the 2016 election by racist voter suppression and gerrymandering, which are tools of white supremacy designed to perpetuate systemic racism,” he said. “These laws target people of color but hurt Americans of all races by allowing politicians to get elected who block living wages, deny union rights, roll back Medicaid, attack immigrants, and underfund public education.”

Throughout the six weeks, Barber and the other organizers hope to draw attention to the policies and laws that keep 140 million Americans trapped in poverty. On Monday, voting advocates highlighted how racial gerrymandering, voter ID laws, an other suppressive voting measures keep people of color from gaining political power.

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