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Black caucus members explore voting rights issues

February 5, 2019

The first Voting Rights and Elections listening session of the U.S. Committee on House Administration took place Monday in Brownsville at the invitation of U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela as part of a day of events he hosted in recognition of Black History Month.

Several members of the Congressional Black and Hispanic caucuses took part in the session, which was led by U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, CHA Elections Subcommittee chair-designee, and which and took place at the Cameron County Courthouse Oscar C. Dancy Building.

Also taking part were U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., assistant speaker of the House; U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., and U.S. representatives from Texas Henry Cuellar, Al Green, Sheila Jackson Lee and Eddie Bernice Johnson.

The members of Congress heard testimony from a panel made up of veteran voting and civil rights attorneys Chad Dunn, George Korbel and Rolando Rios; Mimi Marziani, attorney and president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, and Matthew McCarthy, representing the American Civil Liberties Union.

Each of the panelists painted a picture of voter discrimination against African Americans and Latinos as alive and well in Texas, aided and abetted by state government.

Each cited specific incidences of voter suppression and election changes they said are intentionally designed to make it harder for certain segments of the population to vote, including voter ID requirements and reduced access to polling places.

The panelists pointed to a recent action by Texas election officials flagging 95,000 registered voters for citizenship reviews, based on what has turned out to be a deeply flawed list compiled by the Department of Public Safety.

Rios characterized it as “clearly an attempt to intimidate and harass Latino voters.”

The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act even while acknowledging persistent voter discrimination, opened the floodgates to this and other official voter suppression efforts in Texas and elsewhere, he said.

Following the Shelby ruling, which essentially eliminated “preclearance” requirements under the VRA, hundreds of polling locations were closed in Texas, significantly more than in any other state. Meanwhile, voter fraud is virtually nonexistent in the state, agreed the panelists.

“We are at the epicenter of voting discrimination here in the state of Texas,” Jackson said.

Fudge said the purpose of the listening sessions is to establish a record proving that the VRA is still as needed as ever.

“We’ve come so far but we’ve got so far to go. ... The only protection we have is the law,” she said.

Dunn said diluting the nation’s vote is “caustic to democracy,” while Luján asserted that “we have a lot of work to do here.”

At noon Monday at the Brownsville Historical Association Heritage Museum, Vela introduced his fellow representatives, there for the unveiling of a new exhibit dedicated to the Brownsville Raid, an infamous event in African American history in the Rio Grande Valley.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., joined the other members of the delegation at the museum, while author and Texas Southmost College trustee Dr. Tony Zavaleta delivered a presentation on the history of the raid. This was followed by a walking tour led by University of Texas Rio Grande Valley emeritus professor of history Tony Knopp.

The day wrapped up with an awards ceremony at the Dancy Building honoring the contributions of individual African Americans in the Rio Grande Valley — individuals and contributions listed in the form of Congressional Record Statements read by 4th and 5th graders from Benavides Elementary School.

The evening closed with remarks by Congressional Black Caucus members, followed by a performance of spiritual songs by the South Texas Mass Choir.

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com

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