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Lessons from Birmingham & the Civil Rights Movement

Three things to think about this June 22

Ross Sherman
Press Director
June 22, 2023

As members of an effort working to put voters first, we recognize how critical it is to reflect on our nation’s history and learn from previous movements for civil rights and voters’ rights. In this spirit, we held our mid-year retreat in Birmingham, Alabama last week — one of the centers of the Civil Rights Movement. We visited the hallowed halls of the Bethel Baptist Church, where Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth kick-started the fight for racial equality in 1956. While sitting in the original wooden pews where Civil Rights leaders once sat during the church’s famous Monday Night Meetings, we listened to choir members sing hymns from the height of the Movement and share their stories.

Listening to the voices of these men and women was profound, particularly in a place so resonant with Black Americans' nonviolent struggle for their rightful place in our democracy. Reflecting on this experience as a team reminded us that this is why we do what we do. It fuels our resolve to continue putting voters first and reaffirm our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the work.

1. The Voting Rights Act survives (for now)

The work of Rev. Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole helped lead to two landmark pieces of federal legislation: the 1964 Civil Rights Act — which outlawed discrimination based on race — and the 1965 Voting Rights Act — which outlawed racial discrimination in voting.

But that’s not where the story ends. Since the inception of the Voting Rights Act, its opponents have been working to undermine it. Those efforts culminated in a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that reduced Congress’ power to prevent states with a history of discrimination from enacting restrictive voting laws. In the aftermath of this decision, we’ve seen a surge of state legislatures tightening voting access.

Just last year, another case appeared in front of the Supreme Court that many feared would further weaken the Voting Rights Act. Instead, justices ruled earlier this month that Alabama’s congressional maps were illegal because they diluted the power of Black voters. A temporary win, yes, but a far cry from ensuring equal representation.

Alabama, among many other states, still grapples with the Primary Problem. A glaring example is that all seven of Alabama’s congressional districts were noncompetitive in 2022, with no competition in the dominant party’s primary for five of these districts. This means that a mere 5 percentage of the voting-age population effectively elected the state’s entire U.S. House delegation. That’s why tackling the Primary Problem is our core issue at Unite America — to make sure every voter has equal voice and representation.

2. Virginia holds primary under new redistricting maps

Did you know that Tuesday was Primary Election Day in Virginia? It’s only one of four states (including Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey) that is holding legislative elections in the 2023 “off year”. At Unite America, we’re paying extra attention to Virginia because it’s a state that has been a leader on our priority election reforms (see our State of Reform report for more).

Most notably, Virginia is tackling the Primary Problem by using an independent redistricting commission to draw voting maps. Tuesday was the first election in Virginia history under those fairer maps. With fairer state legislative districts, Virgina’s general elections in November will be more competitive, incentivizing candidates to appeal to voters beyond just their partisan base. Ultimately, fair and competitive districts will lead to a state government in Virginia that better reflects the will of all Virginia voters, and is better equipped to tackle the commonwealth’s biggest problems.

Elsewhere, Arlington County, Virginia became the first county in state history to hold a publicly-funded ranked choice voting election for its Democratic primary for County Board. This instant runoff system, which the Virginia Republican Party also used to nominate Gov. Glenn Youngkin, is another tool to ensure that election winners secure a majority to win office.

3. California’s 2024 Top-Two Senate race is wide open

The race for retiring Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s U.S. Senate seat is on, with at least three prominent Democrats in the race. Latest polling shows a wide open race, with no candidate above 15% and a healthy plurality (47%) still undecided. A recent Politico headline even said “this race could get weird.”

But that won’t be on account of the state’s election system. That’s because, as you’ve heard here before, California uses a top-two nonpartisan primary, where all eligible voters get to participate and the two leading candidates advance to the general election, regardless of party. Even if the two candidates who make the general election are both Democrats, it’s not just Democrats who get to have a say in who represents them in Washington, D.C. That’s a fair process to the more than 11.6 million independents, Republicans, and third-party voters in California — who, in a closed primary state, would have effectively no voice in their election process. That they do is a good thing for democracy.

Check out this great write-up in Independent Voter News about our recent report on California’s top-two system for more.

Finally, as you may have noticed, we didn’t send a Three Things last week. In part because of your feedback, we’ll be sending this newsletter biweekly going forward. And in the spirit of making sure we’re giving you the most relevant and interesting content on these issues, we’re issuing a mid-year survey next week to keep the conversation going. Stay tuned for a chance to share your thoughts!