Two months before the election, Sherrilyn Ifill is probably one of the busiest women in the country. She’s a law professor and the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a law firm and civil rights organization based in New York. Sherrilyn Ifill and her organization are litigating voting rights cases. They are fighting states who try to keep African Americans and other minorities away from the ballots. And with the general election coming up, the Legal Defense Fund is trying to settle as many open cases as possible.
These days, Sherrilyn is racing back and forth between her New York and Washington offices. We finally set a date for an interview in New York, but at three o’clock in the morning before our scheduled interview, she emails me to say that she has to go to Washington that day. After many more emails, we eventually agree it’s easier to talk on the phone. She is in Washington when we talk and while she elaborately speaks about her work, I can hear her purchasing a to-go-lunch.
Sherrilyn says she wanted to be a civil rights lawyer from when she was a little girl. “I never met a lawyer until I went to law-school, but I remember seeing Thurgood Marshall on the television, that’s what inspired me.” Thurgood Marshall was the first African American Supreme Court justice in the United States. She clearly sees herself in the tradition of the Marchers of Selma. “We reorganize, and there are other elements of fighting today, but the law is still a good way”, she says.
This year’s general election on November 8th will be the first that is not under the full protection of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This was designed to make sure that federal states were not keeping minorities away from the ballots, by literacy tests, for example, that were common in Southern States at the time. States with a tradition of voter suppression were put under federal scrutiny by Section 5 of the Act, stating that if a state fulfilled certain criteria, all changes proposed to its voting laws would have to be cleared by federal institutions before being introduced.
However, in 2013, the formula determining which states were affected was struck down by the Supreme Court’s Shelby County vs. Holder verdict. Since then, it can’t be applied. The Voting Rights Act was “critically wounded”, Sherrilyn Ifill says. “This is a threat to our status as full citizens.”
Republican States have been very creative in trying to keep groups that typically vote for the Democrats – African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities – away from the ballots or in diminishing the impact of their vote. One way is gerrymandering. Another is restricting early voting periods. But before this election, it’s strict photo ID requirements that are the focus of much litigation.
Sherrilyn has litigated the Texas case. Texas has introduced new rules concerning the IDs voters have to present at the ballots. In the United States, it’s not mandatory to have an ID. Minority voters often do not possess a passport or a driver’s license. They would thus have to apply for it and obtain several other documents such as a birth certificate and a confirmation of residence in order to eventually vote – a process, Sherrilyn says, that will keep too many people away from the ballots.
The photo ID requirements in Texas were first introduced in 2011, but overturned in the federal pre-clearance foreseen by the Voting Rights Act. Only hours after “Shelby County vs. Holder”, Texas reintroduced them in 2013. The Legal Defense Fund challenged them for the Legal Defense Fund, and won a ban in July 2016 before the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court ruled that voters who signed an affidavit that they could not “reasonably obtain” one of the required IDs had to be allowed to vote, and that the state had to spend 2.5 million dollars in informing its citizens about the new regulation.
But Texas still didn’t give up. Just before we were to meet, Sherrilyn and her coworkers were notified that Texas had indeed started an information campaign, but other than demanded by the Court was leaving out the word “reasonable” from its information material, now implying that voters could use the way of signing an affidavit to vote only if they had not been able to obtain an ID at all, having exhausted all possible means of doing so.
That’s one of the reasons Sherrilyn rushed to Washington. The LDF held a press-conference, and issued legal complaints. As we talk on the phone a few days later, she says, “we’re still wrestling with them, this will discourage voters. Voters will be confused.”
Two weeks later, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos ordered Texas to reissue its information material, and by now, the rules are properly displayed on the Secretary of State’s website.
Fights like these are exhausting – and pushing advocacy groups like the LDF to their limits. “Since Shelby County vs. Holder, we are playing Whac-a-Mole with those states”, Sherrilyn says. They come up with new restrictions, they get struck down and then they come up with new restrictions. “We need to return to preclearance”, she says, “and reform the triggering formula.” With this Congress, however, that proved impossible. The Justice Committee is chaired by Republican Representative Bob Goodlatte, who has been handed many suggestions for bills, but hasn’t accepted any for discussion in his committee.
A week later, I do run into Sherrilyn Ifill personally, after all. In Philadelphia, she is one of the laudatories honoring John Lewis as he is awarded the Liberty Medal. She seems very energetic, as we briefly shake hands and talk about Berlin, a city she knows well because her husband lives there. During her speech she says: “John Lewis shows us the joy of a life committed to a passion for justice, and that this can be a lifelong passion.”