Columbia | SIPA

Voting Rights v. Voter Suppression

Benjamin Jealous, President and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was the keynote speaker at the 15th Annual David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum, “Voting Rights v. Voter Suppression,” on Monday, March 26th, 2012 at SIPA. 

The event began with an introduction by Interim Dean Robert C. Lieberman, who introduced Jealous and the evening’s discussion, saying that voting rights in the United States was “something we had all been hoping was a settled issue. We now find it is not settled. Voting rights are once again at the forefront of the fight for civil rights and equality in America.” 

In his address, Jealous emphasized that the fight against voter suppression was not happening in a void.

“My generation is the most incarcerated in the planet and the most murdered in the planet,” he said. “The disproportionate incarceration of the black community and voter suppression are exactly the same thing.” 

Throughout his speech, Jealous shared personal stories about his grandmother and his family who have been fighting for civil rights at the NAACP for generations.

“What we have always been fighting for is a version of our freedom,” he said. 

He explained that the main challenge for him is focusing on what to fight for when there is so much that needs to be confronted. “To make things better for the next generation, you have to be extremely focused. What do we fight for? These days, the fight is against mass incarceration.”

Losing the right to vote is not only a civil rights issue; it also limits the ability to fight against other civil rights issues.

“What we have fundamentally as a people, as a community, is our voice, our right to vote,” said Jealous. “We’ve suppressed the vote, minimized the vote, shaved off a little here, a little there… This year, what we have gone through is the biggest assault on voting rights, pushing out 5 million people.”

In the panel discussion following Jealous’s speech, SIPA Professor Dorian Warren added,

“Historically, efforts at voter suppression have always been about suppressing issues of equality and social justice.”

Jealous’s address came amidst the controversy in Sanford, Florida  over  the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin and subsequent protests. Jealous had been in the city the week before and described the situation as the tensest he had ever seen. According to the accounts   he heard, Jealous said that the major reaction was the deep pain of racial profiling.

“Protecting the vote and ending racial profiling are actually the same thing,” he said. “The disproportionate incarceration of the black community and voter suppression are exactly the same thing.”

The persistent theme of the forum was the unfortunate and surprising ubiquity of voter suppression laws, both currently and in the foreseeable future.

“We will have to fight voter suppression legislation every year,” said Jealous. 

- Michelle Chahine