Voting Rights: Old Battles Become New Again

Rep. Terri A. Sewell
United States Congress
7th Congressional District, Alabama

After more than 250 years of debate, five constitutional amendments, decades of protest, and a handful of monumental Supreme Court decisions, the basic right of American citizens to vote in our elections is still not a settled matter.

While minority voters no longer face literacy tests or have to guess how many marbles are in a jar when they register to vote, there are new strategies for disenfranchising Black and brown communities.

Some of the most damaging are the voter ID laws which have swept across the country. Before 2006, there wasn’t a single state that required voters to show photo identification in order to cast their vote. Today, 10 states require photo ID, and a total of 33 states require some form of identification at the polls.

While these requirements might sound harmless at face value, the fact is that 21 million Americans—over 10 percent of the eligible U.S. voting population—do not have a government-issued ID. The underlying documents required to obtain an ID cost money, and for rural and minority Americans, the travel required to obtain identification can present a major burden. Additionally, some older Americans in rural communities may not have the requisite birth forms due to being born at home by midwives.

The impact of these barriers on our elections cannot be underestimated. The Government Accountability Office reports that voter ID laws reduce voter turnout by an estimated two to three percent. For minority voters, turnout rates drop even further.  According to a study by the Washington Post, turnout by Hispanic voters is 7.1 percentage points lower in general elections in strict ID states than it is in other states, and turnout by African-American and Asian-American voters suffers as well.

Just four years ago, the Supreme Court added fuel to the voter ID fire, enabling new restrictions by gutting the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), our nation’s single most powerful tool for protecting against voter discrimination. In Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court decided that the VRA needed an update from Congress, eliminating provisions that required states with a history of voter discrimination to get federal approval before changing their voting rules.

The effect was immediate. Of the 15 states previously monitored by the VRA, eight passed or implemented voting restrictions in the year that followed, many targeting minority voters.

The fix for the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder ruling requires congressional action. In the House of Representatives, I have introduced the Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA), legislation which restores and advances the VRA by providing a modern-day coverage test that will extend federal oversight to jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression and protects vulnerable communities from discriminatory voting practices. The VRAA would look at a jurisdiction’s voting record, placing states with 15 or more voting violations over the past 25 years under federal oversight.

Based on this modern-day formula, 13 states would qualify for coverage under the VRAA, including Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. At a time when nine of these 13 states have enacted voter ID requirements, new federal protections for minority communities would help to ensure fair access to the polls.

Instead of supporting solutions that open our democracy to more eligible voters, the Trump administration has made it harder to vote. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has withdrawn from longstanding legal challenges to Texas’ voter ID law, which federal courts have ruled discriminates against minority voters. While the Fifth Circuit Court recently announced it will continue considering whether the Texas legislature intentionally targeted racial minorities, the federal government’s withdrawal in this case reflects the withdrawal of top Republican lawmakers from defending the right to vote.

Protecting the rights of American voters should not be a partisan issue, and just a decade ago, it wasn’t. In 2006, when the Voting Rights Act was last reauthorized, it passed Congress with unanimous support from both parties. But today, 11 years later, Congress refuses to bring legislation to the floor that would restore protections for minority voters in our democracy.

Failure to restore the VRA has not only resulted in a wave of harmful voter ID laws, but a litany of other voting rights violations that limit access to the polls for minority voters.

Consider what happened this past election in Maricopa County, Arizona, where minority residents make up 40 percent of the local population. There, election officials reduced the number of local polling places by 70 percent from 2012 to 2016. The effect was to offer just one polling place for every 21,000 voters, resulting in voting lines of up to five hours at the polls.

That kind of wait is insurmountable for any voter who cannot take the day off or afford a babysitter. But perhaps what’s most unacceptable is that the polling place reduction in Maricopa County would have needed the exact type of federal approval the Voting Rights Act required.  The voting lines in Arizona this past election were not just an outrage, but a preventable outrage.

Facing new barriers to the polls, an antagonistic Supreme Court, and a Congress that refuses to protect our right to vote, the state of our democracy is weaker today than it was just a decade ago.  But rather than resigning our elections to the hands of indifferent judges or biased lawmakers, we have an obligation to take a stand for our right to vote.

Minority voters today are direct beneficiaries of the movement for voting rights fifty years ago. Together, we owe those who fought, bled, and died, a debt of gratitude which we can never repay. But their story, and the story of America’s voting rights movement, is never finished. After 250 years, the debate over our right to vote continues, and we must speak up. Nothing more fundamental could be at stake.