NPR Boosts NAACP and ACLU's Activism After Court 'Gutted' Voting Rights Act

Carrie Johnson's Monday report on NPR's Morning Edition could have been mistaken as an informercial for the left-of-center ACLU and the NAACP's efforts to help "protect minority voting rights," after the Supreme Court's Shelby County v. Holder decision from June 2013. Johnson played up how "a divided Supreme Court gutted part of that law – throwing into chaos a system that had required...states to ask for federal permission before making election changes."

All but one of the correspondent's talking heads during the segment were liberal activists who lamented the Court's decision, but she failed to point out their political ideology or that of the groups they represent. Johnson also singled out one attendee of the organizations' "training session," who attacked the Obama administration from the left:

CARRIE JOHNSON: [Gerald] Hebert, one of the leaders of the training, said the Justice Department has failed to follow up with lawsuits against many of those cities and counties.

GERALD HEBERT, CAMPAIGN LEGAL CENTER: They have a responsibility to go out and do something about the fact that they previously found laws to be discriminatory that are now being implemented at the local level. But I haven't seen actions by DOJ, so I've been disappointed.

Host Steve Inskeep introduced the NPR journalist's report by spotlighting how "voting rights advocates contend some states are trying to disenfranchise minority voters." Inskeep continued by outlining how "the states are...applying a Supreme Court ruling from last June...[which] ruled against a system that imposed rules on states with a history of discrimination...those states had to win federal approval before making any changes into how they conducted elections. Now, the states can do what they think best, and if anybody doesn't like it, they have to sue."

The host set the tone for his colleague by noting that "some legal groups are now training activists to sue," but left out political labeling for these organizations. Johnson wasted little time before playing a soundbite from Robert Adams, Jr., who identified himself as a district coordinator for the NAACP in Georgia. She then introduced a clip from Laughlin McDonald of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project with her "a divided Supreme Court gutted part of that law" line.

Moments later, Johnson emphasized how "the Atlanta Journal Constitution has found African-Americans are underrepresented in local governments across the state. Gerald Hebert of the Campaign Legal Center says that matters." After her first soundbite from Hebert, she continued with his critique of Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder.

The NPR correspondent twice underlined the apparent difficulties of challenging alleged voter disenfranchisement during the segment. Johnson first cited Hebert, who claimed that "victims of discrimination will now have to shoulder the burden of suing, and that won't be easy." Near the end of the report, she pointed out that "instructors at the training session stressed that bringing – and winning – voting rights lawsuits in this new environment would be a challenge."

Johnson played her one clip from an attendee who thought "the Supreme Court majority was correct last year when it called out Congress for failing to update the Voting Rights Act" near the end of the segment. However, both before and after that clip, she played soundbites from two lawyers who lamented the Court's decision, and omitted their history of donating to liberal candidates.

The full transcript of Carrie Johnson's report from Monday's Morning Edition on NPR:


STEVE INSKEEP: Before we get to 2016, there are elections this year, and voting rights advocates contend some states are trying to disenfranchise minority voters. What the states are doing is applying a Supreme Court ruling from last June. The Court ruled against a system that imposed rules on states with a history of discrimination. Before the Supreme Court ruled, those states had to win federal approval before making any changes into how they conducted elections. Now, the states can do what they think best, and if anybody doesn't like it, they have to sue.

Some legal groups are now training activists to sue. NPR's Carrie Johnson caught a recent training session in Georgia.

CARRIE JOHNSON: A few dozen lawyers and community activists shook off pouring rain from their umbrellas, as they gathered on the 28th floor of an Atlanta skyscraper.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: Yeah, just sign in, so we know you are here ,with your time in-

JOHNSON: A thick fog obscured the towers along Peachtree Street, but people like Robert Adams, Jr. said their purpose was clear.

ROBERT ADAMS, JR., NAACP GEORGIA STATE CONFERENCE: I was invited by the president of the NAACP. I'm one of the district coordinators for Georgia. We're always in the struggle and the fight, so I'm here to get some more training. Training is always good.

JOHNSON: Laughlin McDonald of the ACLU Voting Rights Project has watched elections here since not long after Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Last year, a divided Supreme Court gutted part of that law – throwing into chaos a system that had required Georgia and eight other states to ask for federal permission before making election changes. McDonald, one of the lawyers teaching the session, told the audience he's noticed a difference.

LAUGHLIN MCDONALD, ACLU VOTING RIGHTS PROJECT: We know that in Georgia, it is having a negative impact in some of the jurisdictions – and one of them is Augusta-Richmond County.

JOHNSON: Before the Supreme Court ruled, the county planned to move up its elections from November to July. But the Justice Department blocked that, arguing it would depress black turnout. After the Supreme Court ruling, the county no longer had to ask for permission, so the change was made.

Already, the Atlanta Journal Constitution has found African-Americans are underrepresented in local governments across the state. Gerald Hebert of the Campaign Legal Center says that matters.

GERALD HEBERT, CAMPAIGN LEGAL CENTER: At the local level, those are where decisions really get made that affect people's lives in a very fundamental way. They're the things they talk about around the kitchen table – not so much what's going on in the state legislature, but –  you know, city councils and school boards, and the education of their children and where they go to school and the conditions.

JOHNSON: Hebert, one of the leaders of the training, said the Justice Department has failed to follow up with lawsuits against many of those cities and counties.

HEBERT: They have a responsibility to go out and do something about the fact that they previously found laws to be discriminatory that are now being implemented at the local level. But I haven't seen actions by DOJ, so I've been disappointed.

JOHNSON: Hebert said victims of discrimination will now have to shoulder the burden of suing, and that won't be easy. Listen to this challenge presented by longtime voting lawyer Armand Derfner.

ARMAND DERFNER, ATTORNEY: Because lot of us think – we remember from law school – that voting is a fundamental right. We all remember that, right? Voting is a fundamental right? Okay. You think so? You better go back to law school. It is not a fundamental right.

JOHNSON: Derfner reminded the crowd the right to vote is not spelled out in the U.S. Constitution. But he said voting is a fundamental right in many state constitutions. And that's where lawyers should start, Derfner said, in looking for new ways to sue to protect minority voting rights.

Not everyone at the training believes there's reason for alarm in Georgia. Bryan Tyson, a young Atlanta lawyer, said the Supreme Court majority was correct last year when it called out Congress for failing to update the Voting Rights Act.

BRYAN TYSON, ATTORNEY: Well, I haven't really seen any sort of massive resurgence of problems as a result of that – not really any major issues that I've seen as a result.

JOHNSON: Ann Brumbaugh is a lawyer who's represented the state elections board, and worked on a bipartisan rewrite of Georgia's elections code. She sees more cause for concern.

ANN BRUMBAUGH, ATTORNEY: It makes some people more willing to do reckless things, and it makes other people less willing to do necessary things.

JOHNSON: Instructors at the training session stressed that bringing – and winning – voting rights lawsuits in this new environment would be a challenge. They're planning more legal training for people in Washington and Florida later this year. Carrie Johnson, NPR News.

Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan is a news analyst at Media Research Center