CHARLESTON — Nearly a century ago, the women standing in the group would have been denied the right to vote. Just over a half century ago, the people of color could still have been turned away at the polls, after facing literacy tests, or perhaps being asked to recite the Constitution.
Sleeves rolled up and ready for a fight, Katonya Hart, a woman of color and representative of the West Virginia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, stood in front of the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse, named for the country's longest serving senator. Byrd once organized for the Ku Klux Klan and filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for more than 14 hours.
"You see I'm going to keep fighting because I understand there's a vision," Hart said. "It began with the Civil War. It began with the Emancipation Proclamation."
Hart said that although women and black people finally received the right to vote, it was unfortunate that southern states that were "culturally defeated" during the Civil War then "rose up and created laws to almost end that right just as quickly as it started."
Advocates held a rally at the courthouse Tuesday afternoon in support of H.R. 4, a Democratic-sponsored bill awaiting consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives. They referenced a number of states that have implemented laws that disproportionately impact young people and communities of color — including voter ID laws, gerrymandering and voter purges.
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In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required states that engaged in discriminatory voting practices to receive federal approval before they changed their voting laws, according to Max Feldman, counsel for the Voting Rights and Elections Program of the advocacy group the Brennan Center for Justice.
States that would have to receive that federal approval included those that were making black voters take literacy tests, and where less than 50 percent of voters were registered to vote, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
In a phone interview, Feldman said that H.R. 4 would make it so that certain states would again have to receive federal approval, including those where courts have found they discriminated against voters, as well as states that received objection letters from the federal government, when the full Voting Rights Act was still in place, warning them about potential discriminatory laws.
None of West Virginia's representatives in the House of Representatives — David McKinley, Alex Mooney, or Carol Miller, all Republicans, — have signed on as sponsors.
Feldman noted that prior to the Shelby decision, the Voting Rights was reauthorized in 2006 nearly unanimously, with widespread bipartisan support. The Brennan Center supports H.R. 4.
"So this should be a bipartisan issue and very recently in our history it has been," he said, "and it's our strong view that people of both parties understand that everyone who is eligible to vote should be able to exercise that right. And it's critical that we put in place the measures that we need to in order to make sure that people can exercise their fundamental rights."
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West Virginia does have a Voter ID law, but it's much less stringent than other states.
Acceptable forms of photo ID include driver’s licenses, passports, military and student IDs, and concealed carry permits. Several forms of non-photo IDs are also accepted, including Medicare and Medicaid cards, hunting and fishing licenses, bank and debit cards, utility bills, and health insurance cards. Voters who lack a valid form of ID could have a friend or poll worker vouch for them.
As for voter purges, Secretary of State Mac Warner recently announced he'd removed nearly 200,000 people from the polls. Some were duplicated, deceased or convicted felons, but it's unclear how many were those who were removed because they simply hadn't voted recently.
"Mountaineers are free," Hart said. "Mountaineers are always free and so I know if we work side by side, it will be something true.
"But here we are again with another beast. The sin of anger and hate keeping us from having our full rights as citizens."
Advocates at the rally also urged attendees to register to vote and to check their voter registrations. They reminded them that May 12, 2020, is primary day, and Nov. 3, 2020, is the general election.
"The time is right now," said Del. Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia. "It was yesterday. It's today and it will continue to be tomorrow. I don't care if it was a felon. I don't care if it's someone that's homeless. I don't care."
"When you go to church, when you go to the grocery store, you tell those folks to pull up their phone's and check their voter registrations," she added.
They also urged attendees to call their elected representatives.
Later in life, Sen. Byrd endorsed the first black president Barack Obama, and supported the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act.
"They represent us," said Carey Jo Grace, of the WV Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. "They need to listen to us."
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Julie Archer, coordinator for WV Citizens for Clean Elections, also noted that states can play a role by passing laws to encourage more voter participation. For instance, some states allow same-day voter registration. She said county clerks, who were thinking in terms of work volume, have been opposed to those bills in years past in West Virginia.
In 2016, West Virginia passed a law to enact automatic voter registration, meaning people who got to DMVs would be automatically registered without having to opt in.
State officials have said they couldn't yet implement that program because they were having trouble with regular voter registration at DMVs. Some people had thought they registered at local DMVs, but those registrations never made it to the Secretary of State's office.
In June, The Register-Herald reported that state officials said that problem was fixed. Tuesday, Adam Holley, acting commissioner and general counsel, said the DMV still believes that to be the case, while Donald Kersey, counsel for the Secretary of State's office, said he is still waiting on tangible proof.
Kersey said automatic voter registration shouldn't be a problem for the new vendor for the DMV, IDEMIA, which takes over in November. Officials will have to do less manual entry of voter registrations once the vendor takes over, he said.
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