Posted by Tess Waggoner on August 08, 2019 at 10:07 AM

On the evening of August 6, 2019, AAI joined leading civil rights and advocacy organizations in a candlelight vigil at the foot of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. to mark the 54th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Organizers called on Congress to restore the critical voting rights protections that were gutted in the Shelby v Holder Supreme Court decision.

Describing the significance of the event, AAI Executive Director Maya Berry stated, “Underrepresented communities in the United States, including Arab Americans, continue to face challenges to full participation in our democracy. The Voting Rights Act was enacted specifically to protect our sacred right to vote, reflecting the central role that right occupies in securing the promises of our Constitution. In recognition of the historic challenges of increased voter suppression efforts in states across the country, we join our allies at nationwide voting rights vigils to urge Congress to defend the enfranchisement of all Americans by passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act.”

The following are AAI Policy Counsel Ryan Suto's remarks as prepared for delivery: 

The Arab American Institute is proud to stand alongside our allied civil rights and community advocacy organizations. AAI has been supporting the electoral participation of Arab Americans for over twenty years, especially through our Get-Out-The-Vote program, #YallaVote, and our Arabic language national election protection hotline.

And in 2018, we supported and organized around ballot initiatives in Florida and Michigan aimed at removing obstacles to voting and ultimately expanding the franchise.

So, like all of you, we too have been dismayed watching the fallout of Shelby. That decision essentially declared that, in the eyes of the Supreme Court, state-based racism is all but dead. And since that 2013 decision, the Court has made clear: that a history of discrimination on the part of a legislature is assumed to be unrelated to present policy, that the disparate racial impact of policies is legally unimportant, and that state governments are always presumed to act “in good faith”. But the communities, activists, and organizations here committed to justice and equality understand the danger of these holdings.

Specifically, Arab Americans have faced combative government officials and illegal scrutiny when merely attempting to obtain and submit absentee ballots. Arab American communities also understand how government policies, such as surveillance programs, can have disparate impacts which undermine any seemingly neutral justifications. Or how government actions, such as unwarranted systemic harassment by federal officials, should not be viewed in a vacuum of good faith.

And all of us here know first-hand that the forces of oppression have long used code, implication, allusion, and misdirection to further inequality by legal sleights of hand and a wink. Through such techniques, voters in almost half of the states face stricter voting requirements than they did a decade ago, many of which disproportionately impact minority communities and would have been prevented by a fully empowered VRA. We must also be mindful of the many voter suppression policies unfolding at the local level, including limited voting hours and closed polling locations in minority neighborhoods. In the face of these developments, the purposeful “looking the other way” by the judiciary is disturbing. But the reality is, the Supreme Court has never expanded the franchise.

Through our country’s history of slowly bringing more segments of society into the community of those with a formalized voice, the Court was never the institution leading on the path to equality. Indeed, the Court's sidelining of the VRA as a bulwark against discriminatory voting laws is an instance of reversed civic progress. But we've seen civic backsliding in the past: from the end of Reconstruction to the era that produced great Americans such as the man in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, our nation failed in the face of a moral challenge. Dr. King and his allies understood that ballot access is a barometer of how society views civic participation, equal opportunity, and the role of law in furthering justice. And now, as was true then, only through grassroots activism can change be brought forth to this land. To this end, our efforts can be animated by a clear moral understanding: that if 150 years ago, with the passage of the 14th Amendment, we as a nation decided that no one could be a fraction of a person, why should anyone enjoy only a fraction of our inalienable rights?

So the Arab American Institute stands with all gathered here to call for the passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act in order to secure our most basic democratic right and obligation. 150 years ago we as a nation also decided that Congress should enforce “the equal protection of the laws” within each State. Today, we are here with you to insist that Congress finally do its job.