One of the nation's oldest civil rights organizations is warning that Russian attempts to interfere in the U.S. political process deliberately targeted African Americans, drawing a link to domestic efforts to curtail voting rights and roll back landmark civil rights protections.
In its annual "State of Black America" report, the National Urban League found malicious foreign actors' use of social media to spread disinformation "aligns with racially-motivated efforts taking place in state legislatures across the nation" and recent Supreme Court decisions.
Unveiling the report at the start of a three-day conference at the National Press Club in Washington, Marc Morial, the group's president and CEO, highlighted Russia's use of race as a weapon to divide Americans and dissuade African Americans from voting, a dynamic he said has been overlooked in the public discussion of Russian interference.
"We need to understand how pervasive, pernicious and widespread it was," Morial told the group of black community leaders, league members and reporters.
"This is all occurring at a time in American history when the voting power of people of color is reaching an all-time high," Morial said. The Pew Research Center estimates people of color will comprise one third of eligible voters in 2020, an increase of 25 percent since 2000.
The report notes that Russian intelligence operatives, working through the Internet Research Agency, posted hundreds of videos and social media posts focused on fears of voter fraud, Black Lives Matter and police brutality.
"The anonymity and audience segmentation baked into online social networks has allowed Russia's online provocateurs to nimbly insinuate themselves into Black activist communities, where they can, in their own words, 'effectively aggravate the conflict between minorities and the rest of the population,'" wrote Brett Shafer from Alliance for Securing Democracy, a partner in the report.
On the domestic front, Morial pointed to three Supreme Court rulings he believes played a pivotal role in making it harder for people of color to vote: Citizens United v. FCC in 2010; Shelby v. Holder in 2013, which struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act; and Husted v. Randolph Institute in 2018, which upheld an Ohio law used to purge voter rolls.
"Shelby was just one of several blows against democracy that this Supreme Court has struck in recent years. It struck down campaign finance reform laws in Citizens United and unleashed the unbridled financial power of super PACS where wealthy individuals could pour unlimited money into the American political process," Morial said. "And most recently in [Husted], the court upheld the right of states to use aggressive purges to remove voters from the registration rolls a process that disproportionately affects communities of color."
On the state level, legislatures in several states have established barriers to voting in recent years. In Tennessee, a new law imposes fines of up to $2,000 for voters who fill out inaccurate or incomplete registration forms. In 2018, Florida voters approved a ballot measure restoring the voting rights of ex-felons, but this year the Republican state legislature sent a bill to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis requiring ex-felons to pay all fines, fees and restitution in full before they're allowed to vote.
While most of the National Urban League's report is focused on discrimination against voters of color, Wendy Weiser, the director of the Brennan Center for Justice, a research partner for the report, left conference attendees with a positive note on Monday.
"We are also seeing significant momentum around the country around efforts to bolster protections for voting rights and expand access to the ballot," Weiser said, citing New York, Virginia, Delaware and New Mexico as states that have adopted reforms like early voting and same-day voter registration.
Morial likewise highlighted H.R. 1, the first bill Democrats passed when they took control of the House earlier this year. The bill would make Election Day a holiday and implement automatic voter registration, as well as same-day and online registration. Other provisions address partisan gerrymandering and prohibit purges of voter rolls.
"We cannot stand on the side in our states and locales and watch the right to vote eroded," Morial said, urging the audience to action. "It's not a partisan issue. This is an issue of mission, this is an issue of morality. This is an issue of what kind of nation we want to live in."