Action Alert

Resistance to Voter Suppression Still Necessary on the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act

Resistance to Voter Suppression Still Necessary on the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act
At the Protect the Voting Rights Act rally in front of the Supreme Court as justices heard cases on the Voting Rights Act, February 2013.

President Barack Obama, Congress members and civil rights leaders retraced the steps of the Selma marchers in March, celebrating the heroism of the activists who shaped America. Now, America celebrates one of the fruits of this march, the Voting Rights Act, on its 50th anniversary.

Those 50 years have not been without their challenges. The law’s biggest challenge is before Congress now and will determine who will be able to vote in not only the upcoming 2016 presidential election, but also every election in the United States’ future.

The right to vote is a staple of the United States’ democracy and is the right that ensures every person has a voice in how the government acts. As the Supreme Court said, our right to vote is a fundamental political right, because it is preservative of all rights. By securing our vote, we protect all of our civil rights. Every person’s vote, each important to our democratic process, is in jeopardy without the protection of the Voting Rights Act.

What is the VRA?

The Voting Rights Act, or VRA, allows the Federal government to enforce citizens’ right to vote, holding state and local governments accountable for any discriminatory voting practices. It outlawed literacy tests and kept states from levying poll taxes, two practices that were meant to keep African-Americans from exercising their right to vote.   

It also requires that states and localities get clearance before implementing new voting procedures or laws if they have a bad track record for discriminatory practices. In these areas, any change that could affect voting has to be reviewed by the Attorney General or the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. It also allows the Attorney General to appoint federal examiners and observers to the area under question.  

This federal preclearance came under fire on June 25, 2013, when the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that the formula used to determine which areas need oversight was outdated and unconstitutional. With no formula, the government can’t determine which states and localities need preclearance. That means discriminatory practices such as reshaping districts to dilute minority voting or making restrictive voting requirements could go unchecked.

Voting Rights Face New Threats

State-made voting requirements need more checks and balances than ever. Since 2010, 21 states have passed laws that make it more difficult to vote.  

The laws include voter registration restrictions, such as curbing who is allowed to conduct voter registration drives, requiring documentation of citizenship, eliminating same-day registration and increasing the difficulty to stay registered when moving.

Some of the most troubling cases are in North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, Kansas, Arizona, Florida, Ohio and Arkansas.

North Carolina immediately cut early voting after the 2013 Supreme Court decision and imposed new registration restrictions by eliminating same-day registration and pre-registration for 16- to 17-year-olds. Similar restrictions were also passed in Florida, Ohio, Kansas and Arizona.

Not all these states have been successful in their effort to roll back voting rights. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case for more documentation during registration on June 29. Arizona and Kansas have been trying, unsuccessfully, to force the Election Assistance Commission to alter the federal voter registration form to require proof of citizenship since 2006.

There are some provisions that protect voter registration. The National Voter Registration Act, or NVRA, requires states to offer the following methods of registration: registration during application for a driver’s license, registration at any office providing public assistance, and registration via mail-in-forms. States must also let voters know when their registration application is accepted and must keep the registration lists current.

In Massachusetts, public assistance offices were failing to provide low-income citizens with voter registration service. Using the NVRA, voting rights advocates filed a lawsuit and ensured that these citizens’ voting rights weren’t hindered by a lack of registration opportunities.

Registration isn’t the only part of the voting process under fire. About half of the new voting restrictions introduced this year are in the form of voter ID laws.

Voter ID laws require citizens to show identification in order to cast their vote. What form of identification varies among the 32 states that have voter ID laws in effect, but the push for government-issued photo identification has led 17 states so far to require photo ID only.

Most Restrictive Laws

Wisconsin and Texas have the most restrictive photo ID laws. Since the April 2015 election, citizens in Wisconsin have to show a driver’s license or state-issued ID, a military ID, a United States passport, a tribal ID, a naturalization certificate or a Wisconsin student ID in order to vote.

Texas’ law, which passed in 2014, requires that a voter show a U.S. passport, a U.S. military ID card, a driving license, a license to carry a concealed handgun, a citizenship certificate, or an election identification certificate. A federal appeals court ruled that the law is discriminatory and violates the Voting Rights Act. The ruling is a narrow, but important, victory for the VRA that shows that it still is relevant even in its weakened state, according to Brennan Center for Justice Director Wendy Weiser.  Texas is expected to appeal, and the case might head to the Supreme Court.

Proponents of these laws claim that photo ID reduces the chance for voter fraud, while opponents claim that photo ID is another poll tax in disguise.

A 2012 study revealed that in-person voter-impersonation is rare; fraud is more likely to occur during registration or in absentee ballots. About half of the fraud allegations in this study were accidental and didn’t lead to any action.

On the other hand, about 11 percent of eligible voters don’t have a form of photo identification, and barriers to getting an ID affect elderly and low-income groups the most.  Getting a government-issued ID costs money, whether it’s travel expenses or buying necessary documents like a birth certificate.

Voter ID laws especially affect African-American and Hispanic voter turnout, as both communities are less likely to have government-issued photo IDs. According to a University of Massachusetts Boston study, voter ID laws and other restrictions were more likely to pass in states with higher 2008 election turnouts from these two communities. Seven out of the 11 states with the highest African-American turnout and nine of the 12 states with the highest Hispanic turnout passed new voting restrictions after 2008.

The impact of felony disenfranchisement is also a key factor in restricting people’s access to the vote. According to the Sentencing Project, about 5.85 Americans aren’t allowed to vote because they have felony convictions. Laws that block voting for this population affect about one of 13 African-Americans.

“Felony disenfranchisement is an obstacle to participation in democratic life which is exacerbated by racial disparities in the criminal justice system,” according to the Sentencing Project.

With voter ID laws, restrictions on voter registration and the harmful impacts of felony disenfranchisement, the need to fully restore and expand voting rights is as critical as ever.

Fully Restoring the Voting Rights Act

The VRA is in more danger than it has been since its creation, according to President and CEO Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

“Unless Congress acts soon, voters will continue to face this discrimination at the polls as they attempt to participate in the first modern presidential election without protections of the Voting Rights Act,” Henderson said in a statement.

The VRA has been supported by both sides, Democrat and Republican, in the past. Now, however, it faces a lack of GOP support as the country gears up for another presidential election race.

Congressional Democrats introduced a new bill, the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015, on June 24 to fully restore the VRA. Any state with 15 or more voting rights violations in the last 25 years would need to clear new voting laws with the Department of Justice. If the state itself were responsible for at least one of those violations, only 10 violations in that timeframe would be needed to qualify.

This bill comes after its predecessor, the Voting Rights Amendment Act, failed to move past the House Judiciary Committee.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chair of this committee, told journalists that the VRA can still protect citizens’ right to vote without changes.

The Voting Rights Amendment Act’s failure, in addition to the fact that it would only subject four states to the Justice Department’s review, led to the more inclusive Voting Rights Advancement Act. This new bill requires 13 states to receive preclearance: New York, California, Arkansas, Arizona, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana and Texas.

By passing this bill, Congress would be guaranteeing that governments known for keeping certain groups of people from having an equal chance to vote would need preclearance to change their voting procedures or laws.

“In this 50th anniversary year, Congress can’t let the few who dispute the reality of voting discrimination stop the majority from doing what it knows is right,” Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said. “This year, Congress must work together to pass historic voting rights legislation.”

Posted or updated: 8/21/2015 11:00:00 PM

Resources:

PDF resource opens in a new window

PDF opens in a new window Download the Voters Rights Toolkit
 

 PPT resource opens in a new window

PPT opens in a new window Download the Protecting Voting Rights Power Point

Under the VRA’s original formula, state or local governments needed oversight if they have, as of November 1972*:

  • A test or device restricting people’s ability to register and vote
  • Ballots and election information only in English in areas with more than five percent of minority language speakers eligible to vote.
  • Less than 50 percent of eligible citizens registered to vote
  • Less than 50 percent of eligible citizens who voted in the last election
* State and local governments could get out of federal supervision if they have a good track record for ten years.

Take Action:

Meet your Congressional representatives in your district or contact them through the Congressional switchboard (202-224-3121). Urge them to support the following bills.

  • Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015 (H.R.2867) restores the VRA.
  • Voter Registration Modernization Act in the Senate (S.1088) and the Voter Empowerment Act in the House (H.R.12) aim to make the registration easier and more accessible by requiring that every state have online registration.
  • Democracy Restoration Act of 2015 (S.772) in the Senate guarantees former felons the right to vote in any federal office election.
  • The Streamlined and Improved Methods at Polling Locations and Early (SIMPLE) Voting Act of 2015 (H.R.411) in the House would allow early voting, requiring each state to set up polling places near public transportation stops during the 15-day period leading up to the second day before election day.
  • The Same Day Registration Act (S.1139) in the Senate would require states to allow citizens to register to vote on election day and during early voting.
  • The Redistricting and Voter Protection Act of 2015 (H.R.934) in the House would require states to undergo preclearance if they try to move the district lines before the next decennial census.
  • Sign the petition to move voting rights forward.

Learn:

Go Social:

Twitter

  • Hashtags to use: #RestoreTheVRA, #VRA, #VotingRights
  • Accounts to follow: @VotingMatters, @VotingRightsNws, @RockTheVote, @LMW, @VotoLatino, @FairerElections

Facebook

Pages and people to check out:
  • The Equal Voting Rights Institute
  • Fair Elections Legal Network (FELN)
  • Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law
  • Democracy Initiative
  • Rock the Vote

Storify

Storify collects tweets, videos, photos and news articles from around the Internet about different topics. Check out the following stories, relating to the Supreme Court decision regarding the VRA:

Suggested Pages:

*Action Alerts
*Racial Justice

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