The Forgotten Story of How Voting Rights Drive Abortion Access

The fight for fundamental rights cannot be siloed. Black organizers understood that in 2011 but were ignored—this time, we must listen to them.

Photo of protest in Texas with a Black woman holding sign that reads Black voters matter and a white woman holding sign that says Shame on you governor abbott
The abortion rights fights in Texas and Mississippi may come as a surprise to some, but to Black organizers in the South, this was expected—predicted, even. Tamir Kalifa/Getty Images

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What if I told you that the current abortion rights fights in Texas and Mississippi could have been avoided? That this new age of abortion criminalization was not destined to come to pass?

Because what’s going on with abortion rights in the South may come as a surprise to some, particularly to those who spent the last decade insisting that Roe v. Wade was safe and there, there little lady, there’s nothing to worry your pretty little head about.

But to Black organizers in the South, this was expected—predicted, even.

In 2011 there was a fight for the soul of Mississippi, and abortion rights and voting rights were at the center of it. Both sets of rights are fundamental, yet neither is explicitly protected by the Constitution. And so both are up for grabs, to hear conservatives tell it. Both rights were under attack.

In preparation for the fight in Mississippi, advocates from mainstream reproductive rights organizations swooped down South and focused on what they knew best—abortion rights. They ignored requests from the grassroots organizers who were speaking out about the need to broaden the effort so as to capitalize on the resources being poured into the abortion rights fight. These grassroots organizers understood that voting rights are as integral to reproductive rights as abortion rights are—after all, if the people most affected by abortion rights being stripped away cannot vote for representatives who would protect those rights, then they’ll never enjoy reproductive freedom. It’s common sense.

Everyone can see it. But back then, the few that could were Black women.

Being a Black woman can be tough—trust me. We often feel as if we have the right answer but that no one will listen to us. Because we live at the intersection of race and gender—and many of us at the intersection of race, gender, and LGBTQ identity—we understand that discussions related to fundamental rights cannot be siloed. They are linked.

Black organizers understood that in 2011 in Mississippi. Unfortunately, they were ignored.

But what if they hadn’t been? Imagine if reproductive rights advocates had listened to what the reproductive justice advocates were telling them? Imagine if a blueprint for protecting against attacks on abortion and ballot access had been in place in 2013?

June 25, 2013, was a big day for abortion rights and voting rights. It was the day activists took to the Texas Capitol in Austin and literally shouted down an abortion bill while then-Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis famously stood on her feet and filibustered the bill for 13 hours. That very same day, the Supreme Court issued its embarrassing ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, gutting the Voting Rights Act and giving Republican-led states the green light to disenfranchise Black and brown voters.

What might have happened if the same energy and resources poured into the takeover of the Texas Capitol to protest the abortion bill had been poured into a widescale fight against voter suppression in Texas?

We may never know.

What do Mississippi, Texas, and Wendy Davis have to do with one another, you may be asking, and what does that have to do with the current fight for abortion rights?

To answer that question, I need to walk you through the 2011 ballot initiative fight in Mississippi, because, reader, when it comes to abortion rights, everything old is new again.

The lingering consequences of the 2011 ballot initiative fight in Mississippi

In the lead-up to the off-year election in 2011, organizers in Mississippi were fighting a two-front war: On one front they were battling Initiative 26, a ballot initiative that would have appended a “personhood” amendment to the Mississippi Constitution. The amendment would have effectively conferred the same rights that you and I have—as living breathing human beings—to eggs, embryos, and blastocysts and would have criminalized the use of certain contraceptives.

Voters resoundingly rejected Initiative 26.

And then there was Initiative 27, which asked Mississippi voters whether the state constitution should be amended to require a person to present a photo ID to vote. Voters approved Initiative 27—this was two years before the U.S. Supreme Court, with Chief Justice John Roberts leading the charge, would gut the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder.

A few months earlier, the Republican-captured Texas legislature had passed one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country. But thanks to the Voting Rights Act, which in 2011 still had some teeth, Texas was required to ask the Department of Justice for permission before it could change its voting laws. And because Obama was still president in 2011, his DOJ said no.

Then, in 2013, two things happened that at first glance may seem unconnected: On June 25, Wendy Davis, who would not have been elected to the state senate if not for the Voting Rights Act, stood up in the Texas Capitol and filibustered an abortion bill that at the time was the most stringent any state had ever tried to enact.

That same day, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in Shelby County v. Holder that rendered the Voting Rights Act functionally useless.

The Shelby ruling gave states like Mississippi and Texas … a green light to resort to the Jim Crow tactics that kept Black would-be voters away from the polls.

For nearly 50 years, the “preclearance” provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required certain jurisdictions with a history of disenfranchising Black and brown people to submit any proposed changes to their voting laws to the Department of Justice or the federal district court in D.C. before implementing them. Any laws determined to be harmful to voters of color would be rejected. In Shelby, Roberts asserted that the jurisdictions previously subject to preclearance due to their history of racism were somehow all better now, and killed the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. (This led to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s infamous quip that “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”)

The Shelby ruling gave states like Mississippi and Texas, which had a long history of oppressive and frequently violent voter suppression, a green light to resort to the Jim Crow tactics that kept Black would-be voters away from the polls, and they immediately set about implementing laws that targeted Black and brown voters—like voter ID laws.

Mississippi Republicans, bolstered by their ballot initiative victory in 2011, had enacted a voter ID law in 2012. In 2013, when the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby released Mississippi from its obligations to get permission from the federal government to change its voting laws, Mississippi Republicans announced they would be enforcing the voter ID law almost immediately.

Texas Republicans did the same thing; they tried to implement the 2011 voter ID law, though a federal judge said it intentionally discriminated against Black and brown voters. But the Fifth Circuit, conservative as ever, reversed that ruling, signaling that it would find future voter suppression laws—like an updated voter ID law Texas passed in 2017, and the sweeping voting bill signed into law this month—acceptable.

Republicans are pulling out the stops to accumulate power

Faced with a dying demographic and winnowing support, Republicans in Texas and Mississippi have set about accumulating power in grossly undemocratic ways, supported by the hyperpartisan Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that stands ready to let them do whatever they want.

Both states are heavily gerrymandered and voter suppressed. Mississippi has the largest Black population of any state—38 percent—but that hasn’t translated into any accumulation of collective power by Black voters in Mississippi, according to Corey Wiggins, executive director of the Mississippi NAACP.

“Mississippi has a long history of being right at the center of voting rights and access to the ballot,” he told Fast Company last November. “Voter suppression tactics here in Mississippi have been racially driven and racially motivated,” and the goal is “disenfranchising … voters who may be more supportive of progressive politics than conservative politics.”

In Texas, Republicans have been similarly targeting Black and brown voters for disenfranchisement, and as in Mississippi, reproductive rights advocates failed to make the connection between voting rights and access to abortion. It is particularly egregious considering that the woman who stood up and filibustered the bill that would become HB 2 (which was ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt) might not have even been elected in 2012 if not for the Voting Rights Act.

Wendy Davis had to file a lawsuit to prevent a redistricting that would have turned her seat over to Republicans in 2012. In 2011, Texas Republicans controlled the redistricting process and set about gerrymandering Davis out of her seat. As Zachary Roth reported for MSNBC:

The GOP plan radically changed the demographic makeup of Davis’ district, among others, moving tens of thousands of black and Hispanic voters into neighboring districts. In fact, of the 94 precincts that were over 70% minority, Republicans cut out 48. … In the new map, blacks and Hispanics were placed in separate districts from each other and were outnumbered by the white conservative majority, which tends to vote Republican.

Davis sued under the Voting Rights Act and won, and she was able to win reelection in 2012.

Davis filibustered the Texas law the same day the Court issued its ruling in Shelby. The link between abortion rights and voting rights couldn’t be any clearer. Shelby released Texas from any obligation to clear its redistricting plans with the DOJ, and it is unlikely that a candidate like Davis would be able to win in that district after Texas completes its redistricting process in 2021.

A pyrrhic victory

Loretta Ross, widely regarded as one of the foremothers of the reproductive justice movement, damn near predicted the predicament the abortion rights movement finds itself in now. In 2011, Ross, then executive director of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, wrote a piece for Rewire News Group arguing that the defeat of the Mississippi personhood initiative might in time come to be seen as a pyrrhic victory. And she was right.

We’ll never know if the outcome would have changed had reproductive rights organizers stopped and listened to what Black organizers on the ground were telling them about the connection between reproductive oppression and voting rights. We’ll never know if a blueprint for defeating laws that disenfranchise Black and brown voters might have been developed and modified for use in other gerrymandered and voter suppressed states.

Had initiatives 26 and 27 been sold together as a pair of measures that would strip Mississippi voters of critical fundamental rights, maybe the voter ID initiative wouldn’t have been approved.

I don’t know. I can only speculate.

But I do know that the Black organizers had the right idea to attack the voter ID and personhood initiatives together. And when they asked for help from the mainstream monied organizations, the organizations flat-out refused.

“Everyone said this is our moment to put reproductive justice into action. And our counterparts were just not ready for what that meant to organize and move towards a victory with an intersectional lens,” Monica Simpson, the current executive director of SisterSong, told Rewire News Group in an interview.

“Loretta wrote about it.”

Indeed she did.

As Ross, then the head of SisterSong, wrote for Rewire News Group:

The 2011 Mississippi ballot Initiative 26 on Personhood and Initiative 27 on Voter ID exclusions may be one of the most important opportunities on the ground for the Pro-Choice and Reproductive Justice movements to work together.

By co-joining race (Voter ID-27) with gender (Personhood-26), we have an excellent opportunity to experience an example of intersectionality in practice in an electoral campaign in which black women may be the very voters we need to move the needle against our opponents’ long-term manipulation of the African American electorate.

Ross recognized that the key to defeating oppressive laws and ballot initiatives was to ensure that Black people, particularly Black women, were given the opportunity.

“I believe we have a strong chance of winning in Mississippi because I trust that African American people, especially Black women, will do the right thing and vote against these initiatives if they are given the opportunity to vote, the motivation to vote, and the right information with which to vote,” Ross wrote.

Marsha Jones, co-founder and executive director of the Afiya Center, a Dallas-based reproductive justice advocacy group, sees the same thing happening in 2021. She and other organizers in Texas are using the abortion ban as a jumping-off point to talk to would-be voters about other issues, but she laments the lack of resources.

“We have to pour into the community so that we can help people in the community understand and connect their living experiences with what happened in Austin—with the people that they vote for,” Jones told Rewire News Group in an interview.

It’s the quintessential reproductive justice framework, and it’s imperative for reproductive rights advocates to make that connection.

“Everybody is gung ho around this abortion bill, as we should be,” Jones said. “And when we come back next week to be gung ho about this voter suppression voter bill that we’re passing, I mean, nobody’s here,” she notes, referring to the voter suppression measures Texas Republicans have rammed through.

We may never know what might have happened, but we know now that the reproductive rights movement does not have the breadth of thought to attack the problems faced by Texas, Mississippi, and soon every other state hostile to abortion.

We also know that the fight isn’t over and that ballot access is critical to protecting fundamental rights—like the right to abortion and the right to vote.

Although things may seem bleak now, there’s still hope when it comes to reaching people. But the connection between abortion and other fundamental rights has to be made.

“We did a billboard in 2018 that said abortion is self-care and people tried to kill us,” Jones said.

“We did another billboard in 2020, using almost the same language, and we had so much support because we used that first opportunity to talk about economic justice and environmental justice and the failure of our state to pass Medicaid expansion and things like that. We had so many people say, ‘I get it.’”

People will get it if you help them make the connection. The reproductive rights movement may not understand that, but the reproductive justice movement does.

Black women do.

“At the end of the day, we just got to push forward and we got to win, and I believe that the people will always win, Simpson said.

“But if we could just get reproductive rights leaders to listen to reproductive justice leaders—to trust Black women—I think that so much of our fight would look so much different.”