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Advocates believe Louisiana’s voting rights have been under attack

2nd October 2017   ·   0 Comments

By C.C. Campbell-Rock
Contributing Writer

The U.S. courts are full of lawsuits challenging slick techniques by elected officials, like gerrymandering and state laws, designed to dilute the voting power of people of color. Current voter disenfranchisement tactics are part of a concerted effort by white elected officials to diminish the voting power of an increasing Brown America.

A good example is Donald J. Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. Trump created the entity by an Executive Order in May 2017, claimed that thousands voted illegally during the 2016 presidential election, without providing any factual evidence.

“The chair of President Trump’s Election Integrity Commission has penned a letter to all 50 states requesting their full voter-roll data, including the name, address, date of birth, party affiliation, last four Social Security number digits and voting history back to 2006 of potentially every voter in the state,” according to The Washington Post.

“The Commission on Election Integrity will study vulnerabilities in voting systems used for federal elections that could lead to improper voter registrations, improper voting, fraudulent voter registrations, and fraudulent voting…The Commission will utilize all available data, including state and federal databases,” according to a press statement.

Louisiana refused to comply with the Election Commission’s request.

Carl Galmon, a local civil rights activist and member of the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute, has sounded the alarm about voting obstacles in the U.S. and Louisiana for decades. From voting roll purges, voter ID laws, gerrymandering to a lack of polling places, Galmon continues to point out tactics to keep African-American and other people of color from voting.

“Voting is a sacred right” Galmon maintains, citing the hundreds of African Americans who have died for the right to choose who represents them in government. When one considers the power vested in elected officeholders, the ability to make laws—even if the law is unfair, unethical, and oppressive—it becomes clear that voting is critical for maintaining democracy.

In 2015, Galmon begin calling attention to a lack of polling sites and particularly in Pontchartrain Park. He points out that the majority of the city’s African-American population lives east of Canal Street and that Pontchartrain Park was the first major Black subdivision in New Orleans. Today, the only polling places for the area’s precincts are located on Chef Menteur Highway at the Union Baptist Theological Seminary.

Gretchen Bradford, President of the Pontchartrain Park Neighborhood Association, concurs with Galmon. “We only have one place where we all go to vote, on the highway. Prior to Katrina we had locations at schools and churches, now if you don’t have a car or you’re disabled, it’s inconvenient,” says Bradford. “Over 65 percent of our residents are over 70 years old. Carl is setting the pace for this movement and we appreciate him for that.”

Galmon wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Voting Section/Civil Rights Division about the problem. Citing Louisiana law that mandates that “each parish shall establish one polling place for each precinct,” he says New Orleans City Council and the Clerk of Criminal Court, Arthur Morrell, is in violation of the law. He has yet to hear back from the DOJ.

“Under state authority, the Clerk of Criminal Court serves as the Custodian of Voting Machines but the City Council must approve the plan for the placement of voting machines at polling sites. Today Xavier University has four polling sites located in its student union, UNO has six at Ben Franklin High School on its campus. Dillard University and Southern University at New Orleans have no polling places on their campuses,” Galmon adds.

When asked if any request had been made to add polling places in the Pontchartrain Park area, Arthur Morrell, Clerk of Criminal Court, said “No.”

Councilperson Jared Brossett can request additional polling places in that District D area. He told The Louisiana Weekly, “This is the first time I’m hearing about it. I will be more than happy to request additional polling sites, if the neighborhood associations and voters in the area put forth that request. But I can’t change or add polling places based on one person’s request.” However, even if the request is made today, new polling places would not be placed in time for the October 2017 election.

Bradford says she will certainly make the request, adding, “I wish I knew that was the process.”

However, the attack on voting rights can be found in laws enforced by Louisiana’s Secretary of State Tom Schedler, and others before him, which have worked to dilute the vote of people of color. “Here is a man who was enforcing a 1874 (Grandfather Law) that was declared unconstitutional in 1915,” said Galmon of a recent lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center challenging the law that initially barred slaves from voting but was used against naturalized citizens for decades.

“In 2012, Schedler led the fight to keep President Obama’s name off of the ballot in Louisiana, claiming he wasn’t a U.S. citizen. A sitting president. Tom Schedler led the fight in Louisiana to take Section 5 out of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This guy is an avowed racist.”

Galmon decries the participation of African Americans in creating repressive voting laws and supporting officials, like Schedler, who enforce such laws.

“TIPS (Norman R. Smith and Attorney Edwin Murray, a former state senator) and COUP (Lambert Boissiere Jr, Constable, and Lambert Boissiere, III, a Public Service Commissioner) endorsed Tom Schedler for secretary of state over Chris Tyson, a Black man who works at LSU,” Galmon says.

“I think some African-American officials act out of ignorance. Only one Louisiana African-American elected official, Jonathan Foster from Amite, came to the 50th Anniversary for the Selma to Montgomery March.”

The 2016 lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Fair Elections Legal Network (FELN) challenged a state-mandated voting law that discriminated against naturalized citizens. Vietnamese-American, Latino, and Muslims in the greater New Orleans area were forced to jump through hoops to prove they were U.S. citizens, before they could vote. There are approximately 72,250 naturalized citizens living in Louisiana.

Louisiana law requires all registrants to declare their citizenship on voter registration forms. Under the law, however, naturalized citizens would later receive a letter demanding that they provide proof of citizenship, such as a certificate of naturalization or a U.S. passport.

“Notice of the requirement was non-existent or buried; nor did the voter registration form state that naturalized citizens had to provide the extra documentation. The website for Louisiana’s Secretary of State also failed to mention the requirement. The obstacle created by the requirement prevented many people from voting for decades and, most recently, in the 26th presidential primary,” the groups said.

The lawsuit was scuttled after legislation repealing the law. “Louisiana’s state election officials and legislators realized that this 142-year-old discriminatory requirement was legally and morally indefensible, and we applaud their common sense decision to repeal it,” said Jon Sherman, counsel at FELN.

“The governor’s action means that naturalized citizens will no longer be treated like second-class citizens when they register to vote in Louisiana,” said Naomi Tsu, SPLC deputy legal director.

Another Louisiana law this year prevented citizens who did not pay state taxes from running for municipal offices. Interestingly, the law exempts candidates running for a U.S. senate or representative seat. Former State Representative Juan LaFonta, an African-American, sponsored the law.

Private citizens are using the law to legally disqualify candidates. Some candidates in New Orleans have been disqualified, including civil rights activist Belden “Noonie Man” Batiste. “I don’t file taxes. I have a medical disability,” says Batiste, who was vying for a city council seat. He is seeking legal counsel to reverse the civil court ruling.

Ron Ceasar, an accountant from Opelousas, is also fighting his disqualification from running for State Treasurer. “I paid my taxes,” says Caesar, who has filed a lawsuit in the 19th Judicial Court in Baton Rouge. Caesar ran unsuccessfully in the 2012 election for the U.S. House to represent Louisiana’s 5th District. He also ran as an independent candidate for Governor of Louisiana in the 2011 Louisiana

Prior to 2013, all changes to voting rights laws in nine states, including Louisiana, had to be pre-cleared through the U.S. Justice Department. Meg Casper Sunstrom, press secretary for Secretary of State Schedler, says both the naturalization voter ID law and the candidate qualification law were precleared. Sunstrom says the naturalized citizen law was pre-cleared in December 1984 but was repealed by Act 281 in the 2016 session and the candidate qualification law was precleared in October 2010.

Galmon disputes the claim. “I checked with the National Voting Rights Museum and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who receive copies of all pre-clearances, they have no records on the two laws.”

If African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans came together in Louisiana, (in ten years, we can elect the first Black governor in this state” and others, says Galmon. These Louisianans collectively voted 39.4 percent in 2008 and 40 percent for Barack Obama in 2012. The same can happen in Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida. 56 percent of all minorities live in the South. That’s why they, whites, are afraid. They see a coalition of minorities as a threat. If they lose those states, they will lose the Confederacy.”

This article originally published in the October 2, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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