Voter Suppression Stands as a Grave Threat to Democracy

Kristen Clarke
President & Executive Director
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

As the country remains focused on the ways in which Russia interfered with the integrity of the recent 2016 election, we must not forget to focus equal attention to the ongoing threat of voter suppression.  Voter suppression and ongoing voting discrimination stand as grave threats to American democracy.  Across the country, we are witnessing state and local officials take action to make it harder for African Americans and other minority communities to vote. From restrictive voter ID requirements to purges of the registration rolls, and from racial gerrymandering to the disenfranchisement of people with criminal histories, officials in some states are working hard to restrict access to the franchise for African Americans and other minority communities.  Through community vigilance and impact litigation, we can push back against voter suppression. 

In 2013, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder that proved to be a game changer.  In that decision, the Court gutted a core provision of the Voting Rights Act known as the Section 5 preclearance provision.  This provision required states and localities with long and egregious records of voting discrimination to obtain federal review of voting changes before they could be implemented. That provision had blocked hundreds of discriminatory laws and policies, preventing them from ever being implemented.  However, following the ruling, states and localities have moved forward at lightning speed with new restrictions that limit access to the ballot box.

In the Court’s ruling, Justice Roberts noted that “things have changed dramatically” across the country and that “(b)latantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare.”  However, Justice Roberts’ view of the voting rights landscape does not comport with political reality.

Take Texas, for example. Hours after the Shelby ruling, Texas announced that it was implementing a restrictive photo identification law for voters. Under Texas’ scheme, a conceal-and-carry permit qualified as an acceptable form of voter ID, but a student ID did not. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and other partner organizations have fought the state of Texas over its restrictive law for the last several years.  To date, five federal courts have now found the law to have a discriminatory effect on African-American and Latino voters, or found that the law was clearly adopted with a disciminatory purpose.  However, the state has remained hostile and unrelenting in appealing its losses at every stage.

Our use of the courts as a forum to fight back has remained all the more crucial as the Justice Department, under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is fully abandoning federal voting rights enforcement.  In the ongoing Texas voter ID litigation, the Justice Department recently made an 11th hour decision to abandon its long-standing position that the law was adopted with a discriminatory purpose. 

In North Carolina, state officials adopted a sweeping package of voting restrictions shortly after the Shelby ruling, eliminating same-day registration, slashing pre-registration opportunities for 16- and 17-year-olds, striking out-of-precinct voting and eliminating early voting opportunities.  In July 2016, the Fourth Circuit struck down the law, described by critics as the “monster” voter suppression law.  The court accurately observed that officials acted with virtual “surgical precision” in instituting restrictions that specifically impacted African-American voters.

In Georgia, voting discrimination is especially pernicious at the local level. In Hancock County, officials sought to "clean up" the voter registration rolls by purging almost 20% of voters, primarily African American, in the county seat of Sparta. The sheriff's office then issued summonses requiring voters to appear with proof of their continued eligibility to vote.

In Macon-Bibb County, officials moved a polling site from a majority Black school to a local sheriff’s office.  We partnered with the community, overcame the recalcitrance of local officials and ultimately had the site moved to a Black church.

In Maricopa County, Arizona, officials cut the number of polling places from more than 200 in prior elections to just 60 during the 2016 primary season, resulting in long lines and extensive wait times at the polls. And in New York City, officials carried out a purge of the registration rolls in Brooklyn that clearly had a greater impact on minority voters.

Vigilance is required at the state and local level to fight voter suppression.

We must also be wary of the mischief that sometimes unfolds on Election Day itself. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law leads Election Protection, the nation’s largest non-partisan voter protection program. Along with a coalition of dozens of partner organizations, we fielded calls from more than 116,000 voters, and would-be voters, in 2016.  From misinformation about voter ID requirements, to polling sites moved without notice, to intimidation outside the polls, voters turned to our 866-OUR-VOTE hotline to report the barriers that sometimes stand between them and the ballot box. 

Confronting Election Day barriers must remain a core part of the strategy to expand access to democracy.

All of this takes us back to the Shelby decision; jurisdictions in many of the states and localities identified above were subject to the provision of the Voting Rights Act that was stripped away by the Supreme Court's Shelby ruling. These jurisdictions would have had to seek federal review before making these kinds of voting changes, and federal officials committed to enforcement of the Voting Rights Act would have blocked them.

It is incumbent upon Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act in the wake of the Shelby County decision.  Expanding access to democracy and eliminating voting discrimination are goals that should enjoy bipartisan support.

The last several years make clear that voting discrimination remains alive and well across our country. Vigilance is required to seize on actions taken to limit the right to vote.  Litigation is needed to confront and resist voter suppression. And strong bipartisan action on the part of Congress to restore our nation’s most important civil rights law is necessary to ensure that all eligible Americans are able to exercise the most sacred right to vote in our democracy. 

 

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