During the Thanksgiving holiday, President-elect Donald Trump added a bit of fuel to the increasing nationwide debate over voting rights in the wake of his election. On Sunday, railing against a push for recounts in several states, Trump sent out a tweet with this baseless claim: “In addition to winning the electoral debate in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
In the past, Trump has called the election system rigged, called for poll monitoring in communities of color in a way that galvanized some supporters and worried civil rights activists, and told NBC’s Meet the Press back in May that he is against same-day voter registration.
“Not so that people can walk in off the street and can vote, or so that illegal immigrants can vote,” Trump told NBC, adding, “I want to make the voting laws so that people that—it doesn’t make any difference how they do it. But I don’t think people should sneak in through the cracks. You have to have—and whether that’s an ID or any way you want to do it. But you have to be a citizen to vote.”
But civil rights groups, including the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the NAACP, have been sounding calls for alarm since 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned an important part of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. The court ruled that states with a history of racial discrimination no longer had to seek federal approval before changing voting rules that might affect people of color.
The NAACP issued a press release the day after the election not only referencing Shelby but also noting that it had “confronted all manner of ugly, unconstitutional voter suppression, including voter purging, intimidation and misinformation.” On Nov. 10, NAACP President Cornell William Brooks joined a coalition of civil rights leaders to promise to fight to keep progress on voting rights from being rolled back.
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Four days before the election, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights released a report documenting the closure of hundreds of polling places since the high court’s ruling. It called the closure of polling places “a particularly common and pernicious tactic for disenfranchising voters of color.”
“For us, the 2016 presidential election started in June 2013. It wasn’t on Election Day, it wasn’t during early voting, it was on the day of Shelby,” said Scott Simpson, a spokesman for the coalition of more than 200 national organizations. Simpson told The Root that the Shelby ruling allowed states and localities to put forth a resurgence in voter-discrimination measures, and he said there are worries that things will be worse under a President Trump.
Simpson and other civil rights advocates point to the president-elect’s choice of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) for U.S. attorney general. A plethora of reports, including this one from the New York Times, refer to Sessions’ racially tinged past, call him an opponent of civil rights and recall that a bipartisan coalition of senators rejected the Reagan administration’s nomination of Sessions in 1986 for a federal judgeship on the District Court of Alabama.
“It’s hard to imagine someone with a more hostile record toward voting rights than him,” Simpson said. “This is someone who will now be in charge of enforcing what remains of the Voting Rights Act, and as bad as it was in the past election, we have no reason to believe it will get any better in a Sessions Justice Department.”
But many organizations, including pro-life groups such as Concerned Women for America, support Sessions, calling him a champion for conservative principles. He’s also supported by the National District Attorneys Association, which said in a statement (pdf), “Rarely in the history of this great country has a candidate been more qualified to serve in this capacity in an effort to promote and protect public safety.”
The National Sheriffs’ Association also endorsed Sessions, saying that he has a “commitment to fairness and equal justice under the law.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republicans support Sessions’ nomination as well.
Democrats are vowing a pitched battle, but currently it appears that the GOP has enough votes to confirm Sessions as U.S. attorney general.
Allison Keyes is an award-winning correspondent, host and author. She can be heard on CBS Radio News, among other outlets. Keyes, a former national desk reporter for NPR, has written extensively on race, culture, politics and the arts. Follow her on Twitter.