January 2015 Bar Bulletin
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January 2015 Bar Bulletin

Voting Rights, Racial Tension at the Heart of MLK Luncheon

By Karen Murray


How appropriate that as I began to write this article about the upcoming Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Luncheon on January 16, that my boss, Donald Madsen, director of Associated Counsel for the Accused Division, KCDPD, asked me if I wanted the latest King County calendar.

Without hesitation, I said yes, since the calendar always depicts a photo of the man whose name our county has adopted as its own - the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - along with one of his inspirational quotes. In his hand, was the 2015 calendar showing Dr. King shaking hands with President Lyndon Johnson at the signing of the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965, in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. Above the black-and-white photo is this quote by Dr. King: "So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind - it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact - I can only submit to the edict of others."

I couldn't help but think what an absolute coincidence that the guest speaker for this year's Luncheon is Professor Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), Inc., and the person who had successfully litigated the landmark Voting Rights Act case, Houston Lawyers' Association vs. Attorney General of Texas, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that judicial elections are covered by the provisions of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.1

And how ironic that in October the Supreme Court would uphold Texas's harsh voter ID law in time for the November mid-term elections, which allowed the state to effectively disenfranchise some 600,000 mostly black and Latino voters. The court's ruling made Texas one of approximately 25 states that have recently passed laws restricting their citizens' right to vote - laws that fall most heavily among the ranks of minority voters.

Several days after the October Supreme Court decision, Ifill was invited by Bill Moyers to be one of his guests on his weekly PBS program, "Moyers and Company."2 Moyers had immediately sought her out because of her reputation as a noted civil rights' litigator whose work included landmark voting rights cases.

Moyers asked her opinion on voter suppression over the last couple of years by those who used legal means to propel their political agendas. They did so by making it next to impossible for many citizens to exercise their right to vote, due to unscrupulous voting restrictions (e.g., shortening early voting periods; ending Election Day registration; restricting third-party registration; stricter voter ID laws; and purging voter rolls), while arguing that such restrictions were needed to protect this sacred system from virtually non-existent voter fraud.3

Ifill responded, "The right to vote was sacrosanct because it was the thing that came with your citizenship. It was the great equalizer. And we're seeing a different philosophy about the meaning of that exercise of citizenship."

After watching that conversation between Ifill and Moyer, I couldn't help but think how disheartening it must have been for Ifill to learn that the voter turnout for the November mid-term elections was the lowest in more than seven decades. The reported statistical data in the November 12 issue of The New York Times attested to this, revealing that in 43 states less than half of the eligible population bothered to vote, and no state broke 60 percent.4

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