A Reflection on Constitution Day, September 17, 2018

By Bryan Fair

As colleges throughout the country prepare to mark the 231st anniversary of The Constitution of the United States, I am honored to share my own reflections on this extraordinary moment. I do so, first, by recalling the majestic language of the Constitution’s Preamble. Second, I recall the words of Chief Justice John Marshall that, “we must never forget that it is a Constitution we are expounding.” Third, I remember the trenchant critique of Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall who, on the occasion of the Constitution’s bicentennial, reminded the nation that the Constitution was defective from the start requiring numerous amendments and a civil war to overcome some of its most salient defects. Finally, I lament the expanding constitutional wedge among the people of the United States and the failure of statesmanship among the nation’s representatives.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, Establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

With those fifty-two words, the Convention delegates stated the goals of the new national charter, intending to improve vastly on the Union framed under the Articles of Confederation. The Preamble’s pledges: to form a more perfect union, to establish justice, to insure domestic tranquility, to provide for the common defence, to promote the general welfare, and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, presented a majestic American Creed, expanding on the founding words of The Declaration of Independence that all persons in the new nation are created equal and all are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

For most Americans, the nation has fallen far short of this credo. Instead, myriad American castes have emerged, notwithstanding bold constitutional promises. Was our constitutional creed a lie? Consider the condition of indigenous Americans. Consider the lives of African Americans. Consider the ongoing subjection of women. Consider the apartheid of the closet and the demonization of our LGBTQI family. Consider religious oppression and the vilification of Muslims. Consider the nativist criminalization of new brown and black immigrants. Consider the public exposition of white supremacy and nationalism. Consider the strategic attacks on our democracy and modern devices to deny or dilute minority voting strength. And consider the continuing denial of equal educational opportunity throughout pre-K thru 12 and university education. In these and other areas, we have dishonored the Constitution and the people.

Chief Justice John Marshall, representing the Federalists, expounded a generative federal power for the national legislature to address all national concerns and for federal courts to review legislative and executive acts in light of the Constitution’s limits. But, it is clear that Congress has never effectively addressed American castes by constitutional amendment or statute. Likewise, Marshall and his fellow justices rarely ruled in favor of the powerless and most vulnerable Americans. Even the most potentially transformative Court decisions, trumpeting the American Creed, did not prevent the instantiation of American castes.

A few in Congress and on the Court fought against various forms of caste. Charles Sumner explained that the principal aim of the proponents of the Fourteenth Amendment was to eliminate black caste.  Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall took segregation to trial. David Souter opposed religious tyranny and oppression. Ruth Bader Ginsburg almost persuaded an all male Court to subject gender discrimination to the most exacting scrutiny. Anthony Kennedy laid bare state animus against LGBTQI persons. Justice Thurgood Marshall knew from three decades of fighting caste that the American Constitution was defective from the start, requiring a Civil War and landmark constitutional amendments to reconstitute the Union. Mr. Civil Rights knew firsthand the status of the outsider and understood American caste like few of his colleagues, most of whom never experienced any form of it.

Despite the Great War and Reconstruction, the lingering question is whether a nation conceived in caste for so many Americans can ever be redeemed? Is there a way forward without white supremacy, without male hegemony, without hetero-normativity, without religious intolerance, without educational inequality, and without political subjugation?

As you celebrate the Constitution, I hope you will think deeply about what you are celebrating. I hope you will examine critically whether the Constitution you celebrate permits American caste. I hope you will try to stand in the shoes of those who live American caste each day and ask what you will do about it. I hope you will use your voice and your talent to speak against all forms of American caste.

The statesmen who formed our nation pledged to establish justice. Their successors promised equal protection of the law.  Thus far, our current representatives have failed to live up to those promises. We have not achieved a more perfect Union. We have not established justice. We have not secured the blessings of liberty for all. Instead, hate and extremism are the principal currency of the American President. The Attorney General defends separating children and parents at our borders. White nationalists are emboldened to assert hereditary entitlement. National parties remain afraid of too much democracy and seek to crack or pack districts to party advantage. And a divided Court seems poised to destroy unions, invalidate the remaining protections of voting rights, and to interpret the Constitution to do almost nothing to dismantle current caste. Thus, there is much work to be done.

I hope that many of you who are in college today will take up the challenge to fight hate and seek justice for all. Only then will we have a Constitution that is worth expounding!

Interested in fighting hate and seeking justice in your own campus community? Contact splconcampus@splcenter.org to find out how we can help. Get free resources to engage your campus in a voter registration drive.  Sign up here: splconcampus.org

 
SOC_Vote Box Socials_My Vote Does Matter.jpg

Join the Electorate, Demand to be Heard

By Janelle Cronk

We may think that because we are a part of the population, our needs should be addressed by our representatives. But, if we aren’t registered to vote, then we aren’t a part of the electorate. Politicians and elected officials represent and appeal to those in the electorate through their campaign promises and policies, but this doesn’t always reflect the values of the entire population.

Think about the first steps of running a city council campaign. Many politicians begin by studying the voting history of their district. The constituents of that district who didn’t participate in previous elections aren’t reflected in this assessment. The candidate doesn’t consider these opinions because they don’t impact the likelihood of winning the election. Should democracy work this way? No. Does it? Often.

When planning a campaign, politicians may consider the views of the population, but their focus is on the electorate. The electorate, a body of people entitled to vote, includes only those in a community who are registered to vote. By influencing who is in the electorate, politicians and political parties can influence the likelihood of their success. Thus, by restricting who is eligible to vote, they can erase the needs of entire communities. Voting restrictions unequivocally disadvantage black, brown, and minority voters.  

In December 2017 the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Phillip Alston, visited the USA. Alston addressed issues of voter disenfranchisement, asserting that the “net result is that people living in poverty, minorities, and other disfavored groups are being systematically deprived of their voting rights.”

As Kat Calvin, the Founder of Spread the Vote, put it, “the people whose votes are suppressed are the people whose everything are (sic) suppressed. Its poor and brown people, elderly people, young people, etc.” Think about this for a minute. The people who are often kept out of the electorate are the same people whose rights are consistently abused. How are they expected to protect their basic human rights when their right to vote is withheld from them? Being a part of the population is not enough to demand one’s rights—you must also be a part of the electorate.

Alston claimed that the USA is experiencing an “undermining of democracy” such as in 2016 when studies found that, “only about 64% of the U.S. voting-age population (and 70% of voting-age citizens) was registered, compared with 91% in Canada (2015) and the UK (2016), 96% in Sweden (2014), and nearly 99% in Japan (2014),” (Alston)

Voter suppression is carried out in many ways including; voter purges, claims of voter fraud, barriers to registering to vote and felony disenfranchisement. For example, nearly 6.1 million Americans are barred from voting due to a felony conviction, “a rule which predominantly affects Black citizens since they are the ones whose conduct is often specifically targeted for criminalization,” (Alston).

Another form of suppressing representation is at play in the debate surrounding the proposed citizenship question on the 2020 Census. The Campaign Legal Center argues it “would significantly lower and skew response rates, leading to an undercount of minority communities,” which impacts the apportion of seats in Congress.  

While there are clear efforts at controlling and suppressing the electorate and representation, there are also attempts at expanding the electorate and ensuring proper representation. These include attempts at registering young voters, appeals for automatic voter registration, and the likes of recently launched celebrity campaigns such as The Last Weekend and When We All Vote.

So, if people want to prevent you from registering to vote so badly. . . do you still think your vote doesn’t matter?

We sincerely hope not. #FirstWeRegisterThenWeVote.

 

How to Be a Voter with ACLU of Alabama and SPLC on Campus @Auburn

 
39185512_10156249290621690_5459521500484730880_n.jpg

Being a voter is more than just bubbling a ballot one day a year. It is a commitment to our communities and our democracy to elect individuals committed to the same principles we hold dear, and to hold those individuals accountable through our actions and our votes. That's why it's so important to be an informed voter. 

Join us on September 11 so you can be ready for Election Day. Find out what you need to know to be an informed voter when you go to the polls on November 6.

-Register to vote with SPLC on Campus. Individuals can fill out new registration forms or update their existing registration. 
-Know your rights for voting! We'll discuss voter ID requirements, deadlines, inactive status, provisional ballots, and more. 
-Learn about the candidates who are on the ballot, what positions they're running for, and how to research them.
-Understand the ballot initiatives you'll be voting on and what they mean. 
-Get tips on how you can get involved in engaging and educating the voters in your community. 

This event is free and open to the public. Non-students welcome.

Facebook Page for the event. 

 

Remembering Emmett Till

 
Unknown-1[1].jpeg
 

By Sydnei Jarman

On August 28, 1955, Emmett Louis Till was abducted in the middle of the night. He was tortured, shot to death and dumped in a river. Three days later, his mutilated corpse was discovered by two young men fishing. Months earlier, Rev. George Lee (52) and Lamar Smith (63) had been killed because of their work with voter registration in Mississippi. Till was only 14- a child. His death served as a catalyst; it was the spark that ignited a fire in young adults and teens across the country. For the first time, people outside of the South saw that the violence of white supremacy had no age limit.

The news of Emmett Till’s brutal murder spread quickly through the global press, putting the pressure on Mississippi. Additionally, the United States was amid the Cold War. The US had to prove that democracy was alive and thriving domestically. In a front for the rest of the world, prosecutors in Mississippi held a trial for Till’s murderers. It lasted for five days and ended in an acquittal for both men. News outlets, at home and abroad, published articles chastising the verdict and exposing the deep seeded hatred that festered among Southern states. All over the country, Blacks were outraged. The only way to fight racism and extremism was to take the fight to the people. As a direct result, voter registration drives were held to assist millions of Black voters who were disenfranchised from Chicago to Tallahassee.

Six decades have passed since the murder of Emmett Till rocked our nation. Once again, we find ourselves under the global microscope. All eyes are on the United States as the Trump administration continues to raise questions about the legitimacy of democracy. Following the example put before us, this generation is ready to rise to the occasion. Voting has become a necessity of change and change is the backbone of progress. September 25th is National Voter Registration Day. We are all responsible for the progress of our country, don’t forget to get out and vote!

We aren’t all called to be martyrs, but we are all called to vote.

By Kate Chance

On this day, 53 years ago, Jonathan Daniels died while fighting for civil rights.  Not for himself, but for others. 

Jon Daniels was a white, 26-year-old man pursuing a career as an Episcopalian priest. He worked to integrate Episcopal churches, and heeded Dr. King’s call to join the march from Selma to Montgomery. His passion for equality led to his arrest during a voting rights march in Fort Deposit, Alabama. Soon after his release from jail, Daniels, along with a Catholic priest and two black teenagers went to a store to buy soda and were confronted by a part-time deputy sheriff.  The man pointed a shotgun directly at sixteen year-old Ruby Sales, Daniels pushed Ruby to the ground to protect her.  Jonathan Daniels was shot and killed instantly.

As a fellow 26-year-old, white, Episcopalian with a graduate degree in religious studies, the legacy of Jon Daniels deeply resonates with me. Much like Jon, social justice is a key component of my life and faith and has guided my career path, which led me to work with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

No matter what we’re passionate about, we have the same opportunities to change our world for the better as Jon Daniels strived to do 53 years ago.

Today, many young people are passionate about social justice. We share our views on social media, attend rallies, volunteer, but one thing we fail to do time and time again is to voice our opinions through the most democratic method of all—voting.

Even though voting is the clearest and most direct way to influence our democracy, young voters, as a group, show little interest in elections—especially midterm elections. Pew Research Center reports that in the 2014 midterms only 22% of eligible millennials voted, which was a record-low year for turnout. These numbers are inconsistent with the millions of young Americans who are passionate about creating change in our nation.

In honor of the life and legacy of Jon Daniels, vote every opportunity you get. It’s not enough to only vote in presidential elections. We must help shape politics as a whole to create a nation which reflects our vision of tomorrow, both locally and nationally.

Every election is dependent on your participation. Every judge, legislator, senator, congressman, mayor, school board member or city official in power has a tremendous impact on our communities and thus our nation. These elected officials are the ones who will shape and influence the future of our community, and we must have a say in the matter. We must vote accordingly.

Young Voters Are the Oxygen That Keeps Democracy Alive

By Isabella Shaffer-Jaffery

Young people’s voices can change the tide of an election. Exuberant, idealistic and confident, college-age students can be credited for radicalizing the views of establishment voters several times over the past century. College students’ reaction to the Vietnam War is an obvious example, but more recently, young people were moved to get out and vote predominantly for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primaries. Senator Sanders promised to do many things that appealed to his millennial voters; debt-free college and a $15 minimum wage were integral issues to his platform. Although a very visible pro-Bernie movement swept the nation, Sanders failed to clinch the Democratic nomination.

This may be in part due to the fact that fewer than fifty percent of college students voted in the 2016 presidential election, and likely even fewer voted in the primaries. Despite having a candidate that specifically appealed to young people and 2016 being a dramatic and well-publicized election, student voter turnout was low overall for the country and fairly dismal at certain colleges. While this data easily fits with the picture of millennials as lazy and entitled, the full story is much more complicated.

Many college students care deeply about the issues at stake in local, state and federal elections, but are not able to vote in the state in which they attend college. This can be due to complicated voter ID requirements, hostile local communities, or changes to the time period in which registration and voting is available. Many students assume that they can show a student ID to vote in their school’s state, but often an in-state driver’s license or utility bill is necessary to show proof of residency, and the likelihood that students have either is slim.

Another problem is that the communities or states that these schools are in can have a very different social makeup from those who attend the school. Local residents feel that the students are not really connected to the community, and vote without reaping the long-term consequences relating to the students. New Hampshire and Maine are among the states who are actively working to suppress students’ votes through restrictive rules about residency that often require the registration of vehicles or procurement of residence confirmation from their schools.

Although states are working against the students who reside there, college administrations are sticking up for their students, with registration drives, incentives designed just for college students, and perhaps most effectively, a competition between schools. The Big Ten Voting Challenge is a competition between universities in the Big Ten conference to see which school can register the most students to vote and then actually get those students out to the polls. With a majority of the schools in the Big Ten conference having thirty thousand students or more, this tactic is sure to reach a large amount of potential youth voters and could influence elections significantly.

I know from personal experience how hard these schools are working to increase youth engagement in elections. I attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and upon receiving my student identification card, I was encouraged to sign up for a voter ID card that would allow me to vote in Wisconsin. I get emails and informational brochures from the university about where and when to vote. However, rarely does my school reiterate why voting is so important. Even if a college student is politically invested and wishes to vote, the local regulations may cause such delays that it seems easier to not vote at all. This is where other students come in.

Seeing fellow students manning the polls, starting voter registration drives or working to change legislation that limits youth voting is encouraging and invigorating. Knowing that people my own age care about issues that affect all of us, no matter our age, has inspired me in the past to volunteer for candidates I believe in and convince other students to register to vote. Political engagement is becoming cool among millennials, and if students and schools work together to give young people the resources they need to enact the change they want, a new generation of activists will be born sooner than ever.

Resources:

(2018). Campus Vote Project. Retrieved from http://campusvoteproject.org/about/.

(2017). Big Ten Voting Challenge. Retrieved from https://www.abts10.org/voting-challenge.

Campbell, E. (2016, August 25). Voting Hurdles Often Keep Students Away from the Ballot Box. NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/college-game-plan/voting-hurdles-often-keep-college-students-away-ballot-box-n637046.

Stockman, F. (2018, March 3). How College Campuses Are Trying to Tap Students’ Voting Power. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/03/us/students-voter-turnout.html.

Let's Get Ready to Register

As voter registration momentum builds leading up to the midterm election, we invite you to be a part of the movement. We encourage you to sign-up to receive a First we Register, Then we Vote tool-kit.  The kit includes materials to help promote and run a voter registration drive on your campus, including t-shirts, buttons, stickers, pens, and reminder to vote postcards. These free resources will help you promote a culture of voting on campus.  We’re also offering an array of free online resources to help with your drive. Leading up to the election we will be adding even more resources to splconcampus.org, updating our blog, and sending weekly emails with information and resources to keep your drive going.

As you anticipate the arrival of your kit, take a look at our website for a taste of what’s to come and to sign-up to participate in  Voter Registration Day September 25th, a national holiday that celebrates democracy through registering voters.

Throughout the campaign, we hope that you will share the triumphs of your voter registration efforts with us. We challenge each campus to get out and register at least 25 voters. In your kit, you will find 25 postcards, which we ask that you mail back in our prepaid envelope, so we can remind those you’ve registered to vote on Election Day.

And of course, please share what you’re up to via social media using #FirstweRegisterThenweVote and send us pictures to janelle.cronk@splcenter.org along the way.

Vote for those who can't

By Kate Chance

August 6th marks the 53rd anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which granted millions of Americans the freedom to vote by overcoming the state and local legal barriers which prevented millions of African Americans from voting. 

While Americans may no longer face literacy tests and poll taxes to prevent them from voting, many barriers still exist inhibiting thousands of Americans from exercising their constitutional right to vote. Some of these barriers are simpler to correct, such as a lack of understanding around voter registration or awareness of state laws. Other restrictions, which often target those of minority groups, include strict voter ID requirements, reducing the number of polling places and limiting the options for early voting opportunities.

And this election cycle presents its own opportunity to influence history. Four million Americans turned 18 years old, the legal voting age, since the previous election. This midterm election brings with it a new opportunity for the youth of America to truly influence and shape our nation to fit the values of the younger generations.

In my home state of Florida, laws prevent previously convicted felons from voting, regardless of their charges. Despite having paid their dues to society through hard time, these individuals are being prevented from exercising their rights guaranteed by the constitution. The majority of states have policies in place which restore voting rights of felons upon their release from prison, parole or probation, but ten states, including Florida, do not guarantee this right.

However, on Florida’s ballot this year is an opportunity to change this—if passed, Amendment 4 would automatically restore the right to vote with those holding prior felony convictions following parole, not including those convicted of charges relating to murder or sexual offenses.

This year, many young adults hear about the candidates and amendments on their state’s ballot and will think, “Why should I vote in this election?” “What does any of this have to do with me?”

I call on you to vote not for yourself, but to vote for others. Vote for your neighbors and friends who face barriers preventing them from casting their own ballot. Vote for the martyrs who lost their lives in hopes of one day being able to vote themselves. Vote for the coming generations who are not yet old enough to participate but deserve the same bright future as the rest of us. Vote for a policy that will benefit Americans who are unable to vote. And vote for those who live in and love this great nation, but face legal barriers to having their voices heard. 

 

Apathy is not an Option

By Connor Brantley 

Before we go to the polls this fall, it’s important to remember why it is so essential that we vote. We are at a critical juncture in our nation’s history, and the best way to ensure a bright future for our citizens is by voting and picking leaders who most closely reflect our values. Having witnessed the consequences of collective apathy in the 2016 election, young people, now more than ever, should recognize the significance of hitting the ballot boxes this fall.

Far too often candidates rely on low young voter turnout to get elected. What this means is that their platform and campaign efforts neglect the views and opinions of younger generations, and politicians gear their campaign promises towards those who statistically are more likely to vote. We can change that. People between the ages of 18-25 make up the largest percentage of the electorate. We have the power to shape this nation for the better, and it is as simple as voting.  

It is equally as important for you to vote as it is for you to encourage those around you to vote as well. The more college students vote, the more our government policies will reflect the values and beliefs of this generation. The shaping of our nation is a group effort, and it is essential that all college students play their part in securing a more promising tomorrow.

You can begin this effort by visiting our new website to learn more about how you can work with SPLC on Campus to get your fellow classmates registered to vote at your school this November. We’re very excited to be launching this new effort and hope you will join us.

 

Make Your Voice Heard

By Dasia Greer

Voting is both a privilege and a duty that every eligible citizen in this country should feel a responsibility to exercise. This responsibility is not only because of the thousands of individuals who diligently fought and lost their lives for all Americans to attain this fundamental right, but because voters play a vital role in the shaping of our nation. Voting allows Americans to effectively voice their opinions and to be heard by their government and fellow citizens.

One of the many excuses I’ve heard from individuals who don’t vote is that they feel their voting isn’t impactful and won’t make a difference in an election—a statement that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Every single vote counts, and the number of Americans hitting the ballot boxes each election cycle is vital to upholding and cultivating the democracy of this nation. No citizen should ever feel that their voice does not matter, or that their opinion is not important.

We must all combat this detrimental ideology by voting, encouraging others to vote, and by simply letting those around us know that their opinions matter and that voting is one of the most powerful means of having their voice heard.