Before Brooklyn NAACP branch President L. Joy Williams was married, she refused to date anybody who didn’t vote.
“I would ask, ‘Did you participate in the last municipal election?’” Williams told a crowd on Saturday, the first day of the 109th NAACP national convention in San Antonio.
Her response elicited laughter from the audience, but Williams meant no jest in describing how she feels about the importance of voting and the high stakes that surround every election – from the presidential contest every four years to local races that occur more frequently.
With the motto, “Defeat Hate. Vote,” programming on the convention’s first two days focused on ways to engage more people in the civic process and remove barriers that prevent people from casting ballots.
On Saturday, journalist Roland Martin moderated the #BlackVotesMatter panel where Williams and four other speakers, including former San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor, spoke about the potential for change that can come from exercising a right to vote, and the importance of understanding the role of the constituent long after an election.
Martin said people need not look far beyond their local community to understand the impact of voting.
“You ask me why should I vote? Because Trayvon Martin can’t, because Tamir Rice can’t, because Philando Castile can’t, because Laquan McDonald can’t,” Martin said, referencing black boys and men who were killed by police officers. “They can’t vote, but you can vote for the city manager who hires the police chief, you can vote for the [district attorney] who prosecutes the cop that killed them.”
Martin also described the influence other locally elected officials have in determining communities’ resources and environments: school board officials have discretion in directing educational funds and approving elements of curriculum, he said, and judges make sentencing decisions.
When Taylor served as City councilwoman for District 2, she said she witnessed the clear link between high voter turnout and greater resources. She observed many of her fellow council members using their discretionary budgets to fund projects in areas with the highest voter participation.
“When I was in office, I had a budget where I was able to communicate [with constituents, but] it was limited,” Taylor said. “I targeted the communications to voters…and I heard, ‘Well I didn’t get that newsletter.’ And in my mind, I thought, ‘Well that means you didn’t vote.’”
In races like the ones Martin described – judges, district attorneys, and school board trustees – where voter turnout tends to lag as offices are listed further down on the ballot, a small group of voters can have an outsized say in who gets elected.
Receive updates on the local impact of coronavirus in your inbox every morning.
However, the issue is more complex than just casting a vote on election day, speakers said. Getting to the poll in the first place can be a challenge.
“If you work two jobs and got to drop your kids off, why is it you pass 10 to 15 polling places, and then you have to drive back” to the polling place in your precinct, Williams asked.
The second day of the convention focused on voting rights, with lawyers from around the country gathering for the NAACP’s 34th annual continuing legal education seminar, named for the first time the Voting Rights Training Institute.
NAACP General Counsel Bradford Berry opened the free seminar by listing a number of decisions within the federal government that he said showed a disregard for civil rights, including the Department of Education’s reversal of guidance on affirmative action at institutions of higher education, a change in sentencing policies at the Department of Justice, the so-called “travel ban” for Muslims, and the termination of DACA.
“The assault on our civil rights will continue unless we flip the script,” Berry said. “We as lawyers have a role to play.”
The seminar also covered how lawyers could work within their communities to challenge voter suppression tactics that make it harder for black voters to go to the polls or diminish the power of votes from within minority communities.
Some sessions focused on specific provisions of the Voting Rights Act that lawyers can use to challenge policies in both state and federal court, while others reviewed broader topics like how to successfully attack an at-large voting system.
To indicate which laws could be challenged, speakers referenced policies that purge voters from voting rolls if they haven’t voted in a number of years, change hours of operations at certain polling locations, and implement strict voter identification requirements.
While not all of the lawyers in the room regularly practice voting rights law, Irving Joyner, professor at the North Carolina Central University School of Law, said it can be simple to identify the problems that dilute voters’ power or obstruct people’s path to the polls.
“It is one of those things that Stevie Wonder can see: the intent to disenfranchise African Americans,” Joyner said.
While not everyone would be able to leave the seminar and begin launching challenges to election laws, Berry said he hoped it would help everyone understand “how to use the law to protect the franchise…and join the fight or continue the fight more effectively.”
Continuing legal education sessions continue Monday on the topics of redistricting; paving the way for an accurate census count in communities of color; and racial, prison, and partisan gerrymandering.