On Wednesday, LeBron James announced that he would be investing his immense star power in a group called More Than a Vote, which will collaborate with other voting rights advocacy groups, including Fair Fight Action, founded by Stacey Abrams, and When We All Vote, co-chaired by Michelle Obama. This announcement came after James’ early endorsement of the protests against police brutality and systemic racism in policing that emerged following the murder of George Floyd. While it is tempting for advocates for police accountability to want to remain laser-focused on their efforts to change policing in the United States, James’ move is a brilliant tactical shift. The voter suppression targeting minority voters that James’ group will seek to combat is inextricably linked with the Black Lives Matter movement’s ability to dismantle the systemically racist police state. One need only look at the events of this week to see how.
After years of paralysis, on Tuesday in Albany, New York, the state legislature repealed Section 50-a, the infamous law that enabled abusive cops to stay on the street by shielding their disciplinary records from public view. In another state capital a thousand miles away, scenes of black voters in Atlanta waiting hours to cast ballots showed once again how voter suppression—which holds back the possibility for legislative gains like the repeal of 50-a in Albany—has become a dangerously entrenched part of this country’s elections.
Let’s start with the story of 50-a. That reform effort, which stalled for years, shows the immense power of law enforcement groups and also the power of the massive organizing against police brutality that overcame the police lobby and led to the law’s repeal. New York’s law protecting the secrecy of police disciplinary records was the strictest in the nation. Civil liberties, criminal justice reform, and racial justice groups have been pushing hard for the repeal of 50-a for years with little success. The list of black people killed by New York police officers grew longer each year—Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Sean Bell, Delron Smalls, Ramarley Graham, Amadou Diallo. Their mothers became tireless advocates for policing reform measures, bringing the cause of repealing 50-a into the public consciousness. But, as has happened around the country, the political power of police unions consistently blocked any attempt at legislative progress.
New York’s law enforcement unions have been influential in the state capital because of their endorsements, get-out-the-vote operations, and campaign contributions. According to the City, just one of the state’s police unions, the Police Benevolent Association of New York City, spent “more than $1.4 million on campaign contributions and lobbying fees since 2015.” Then, in the wave election year of 2018, Democrats won control over the state legislature for the first time in decades. The win resulted in black legislators—Speaker of the Assembly Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins—leading both chambers of the legislature. The 2018 election gave Democrats huge majorities in both houses of the Assembly and seated a crop of new progressive members, along with reelecting Democrat Andrew Cuomo to the governor’s mansion.
It still wasn’t enough to topple 50-a.
Despite uproar over the shielding of the horrible disciplinary record—which was eventually leaked—of the police officer who killed Eric Garner, the reap bill didn’t even get out of committee in 2019. It wasn’t going anywhere in 2020. That is, until widespread protests against police brutality swept across the state and country after the murder of George Floyd.
A bill that could not get a committee vote just a few weeks ago now had commitments for its immediate passage. A group of progressive legislators gave away their contributions from police unions—some publicly donated them to bail funds for protesters. In less than two weeks, Cuomo went from having never taken a position on the repeal of 50-a during his three terms as governor, to offering vague support for some kind of “reform” measure, to announcing that he would sign the full repeal of the law and pledging that New York would become a leader on police reform.
New York’s police unions are furious. The president of the statewide police union said in an angry tirade on Tuesday, “Our legislators abandoned us.” We can expect to see law enforcement unions use the full weight of the considerable political influence that successfully blocked reform for years to try to overturn this small but important movement toward accountability. The nascent progress is historic but fragile and will be tested by political contributions, GOTV efforts, and campaign ads aimed at rolling back reform and targeting reformers. To successfully confront the power and influence of law enforcement, advocates for police accountability must take to the polls with the same passion and numbers with which they have taken to the streets.
But in Georgia on Tuesday, we saw what’s standing in the way of success at the ballot box.
Atlanta voters waiting in unfathomably long lines at polling places paid tribute to a system that has been built to suppress minority votes and not to handle the surge in voting by mail precipitated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Georgia was already well known for Gov. Brian Kemp’s record as a vote suppressor during his tenure as secretary of state, including the purging of more than 1 million voters from the rolls and the closing of polling places in poor and predominantly black neighborhoods. On Tuesday, those obstacles were compounded by the state’s failure to deliver absentee ballots on time, widespread breakdowns of voting machines, and a shortage of ballots, which had voters in predominantly black precincts waiting for hours to cast their ballots and caused others to walk out without voting. As demonstrated in Wisconsin earlier this year and elsewhere, these tragic rollbacks of voting rights are nothing new. Republicans have publicly committed more than $20 million to fighting state efforts to expand access to voting by mail in court all over the country. These voter suppression efforts are also combined with old-fashioned voter intimidation through aggressive “poll watching,” including plans by some Republicans to send off-duty police into predominantly minority areas to challenge whether voters are properly registered.
Police accountability advocates are also going to have to go above and beyond to make up lost ground with new voters because voter registration has plummeted during the pandemic. Then there are the states that make it hard to register to vote even when there’s no pandemic, such as New York and Texas. In the Lone Star State, police accountability advocates have been working to overcome opposition that stripped important policing reforms out of the Sandra Bland Act of 2017. But Texas has no online registration at all, and for the time being, New Yorkers can only register to vote online if they already have an ID from the Department of Motor Vehicles. This means that young voters and voters in dense urban areas, who are more likely to be minority voters, are going to be least able to register right now. Both New York and Texas also have early voter registration cutoff dates that make it hard for potential new voters to register and cast a ballot. While 19 states allow voters to register and cast ballots as late as Election Day, Texas requires voters to register at least 30 days before an election, and New York no later than 25 days. So even if organizers in New York had engaged in aggressive voter registration during the past two weeks of protests, few of those voters would have been eligible to vote in the upcoming June 23 primary elections.
The people of color and young people driving the movement are among the most likely to be affected by voter suppression. Effectively fighting voter suppression right now requires an unprecedented commitment to step up voter registration, turnout, and protection. James is offering that commitment. As he told reporters on a call on Wednesday, “We’re going to give you the background of how to vote and what they’re trying to do, the other side, to stop you from voting.” James—who six years ago made headlines when he and his teammates wore T-shirts that read “I Can’t Breathe,” in homage to Eric Garner, onto the court before an NBA game—has long been a vocal critic of police brutality and was early in his support for the recent protests. Having seen progress stall for years, James seems to recognize both the historic nature of the gains and the critical need to protect them at the polls. “Because of everything that’s going on, people are finally starting to listen to us—we feel like we’re finally getting a foot in the door,” he said on Wednesday.
There’s time before November to kick the door wide open by expanding access to voting by mail, ensuring safe in-person voting, and providing opportunities for voter registration. Fighting voter suppression will enable proponents of change to fight off attempts by law enforcement to roll back ongoing reforms like the repeal of 50-a and to continue addressing the fundamental changes that have been blocked until now.