Election law

  • October 9, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Deuel Ross, Fried Frank Fellow, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

    On Friday, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), on behalf of our allies at Greater Birmingham Ministries and the Alabama NAACP, wrote a letter to the state of Alabama about its decision to close 31 of its Department of Public Safety (DPS) driver’s license-issuing offices. The state’s decision shuttered DPS offices in eleven rural counties: Choctaw, Sumter, Hale, Greene, Perry, Wilcox, Lowndes, Butler, Crenshaw, Macon, and Bullock. These eleven counties make up most of Alabama’s “Black Belt”—a region with large concentrations of African Americans, incredibly high poverty rates, and almost no public transportation.

    In our letter, LDF noted that there is a strong likelihood that Alabama’s actions violate the protections provided by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the United States Constitution. But what do driver’s license offices have to do with voting? A lot, actually.

    In 2014, Alabama began enforcing a strict photo ID law which requires voters to show a driver’s license or another form of photo ID in order to cast a ballot. Alabama did so despite the state’s own analysis, which found that at least  250,000 registered voters don’t have a driver’s license or other acceptable photo ID. One such voter was Willie Mims, a 93-year-old African American who was turned away from his usual polling place because he did not have a driver’s license. African Americans like Mr. Mims very likely account for a disproportionate share of those thousands of voters that the photo ID law may disenfranchise. In addition, the federal National Voter Registration Act requires Alabama’s DPS offices to provide voters with opportunities to register to vote. Alabama recently agreed to adopt measures designed to increase such opportunities for voter registration.

    In light of the close relationship between voting and driver’s license offices, and despite Alabama officials’ half-hearted denials, these closures will drastically reduce the number of locations where African-American voters can go to ensure their unfettered access to the ballot. These closings in the poorest, most rural parts of the state’s African-American community smack of the cavalier racism of the Jim Crow era and open yet another chapter in Alabama’s long and egregious history of suppressing the African-American vote.

  • October 8, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Herman N. (Rusty) Johnson, Jr., Associate Professor of Law, Samford University Cumberland School of Law

    The state of Alabama has once again relegated some of its citizens to second-class status.  The confluence of driver’s license office closures and a much maligned voter identification law fosters the dishonoring of Alabama’s black and impoverished citizens in a perpetual cycle of deprivation and struggle.

    The genesis of the recent strife begins with Alabama’s enactment of a voter ID law in 2011, requiring citizens to present a valid, government-issued ID to vote at polls beginning in 2014. One of the most common forms of ID satisfying the state law are driver’s licenses. Pursuant to the state’s own study conducted in 2014, 10 percent of registered voters – 250,000 citizens – lack any form of the required photo ID, and 20 percent of registered voters – 500,000 citizens – lack a valid Alabama driver’s license or non-driver photo ID.

    Ostensibly due to spending reductions in Alabama’s fiscal year 2016 budget, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (“ALEA”), of which the Driver License Division is a part, closed 31 part-time, satellite driver’s license offices. As a result of these closures, 28 of Alabama’s 67 counties will not have facilities to issue licenses to first-time driver’s license examinees or out-of-state transplants seeking an Alabama license. Those seeking license renewals may do so at county probate offices or online (yet those options present their own problems).

    Citizens and civil rights defenders decry the closures due to the disproportionate burden massed upon black citizens and the impoverished in the largely rural counties. The closures eradicate eight of the ten counties in Alabama with the highest percentages of non-white, registered voters. Indeed, those eight counties comprise the only counties where more than 75% of the registered voters are black citizens. A refined analysis portrays a more troublesome picture. While 80 percent of the counties with non-white voting majorities suffer the closures, only 35 percent of the counties with white voting majorities bear any consequences (20 of the 57 remaining counties in Alabama), thus leaving 65 percent of the counties with majority-white voters largely unaffected. This disparity in the closures’ impact starkly portrays the inequity in ALEA’s budget cutting.

  • September 4, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    On The Huffington Post BlogJudith E. Schaeffer of the Constitutional Accountability Center weighs in on the controversy in Rowan County, Kentucky, arguing that obtaining a marriage license should be hassle-free for everyone.

    In a press release, Demos announced that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on Thursday reinstated a case challenging Nevada’s failure to provide voter registration services to its low-income citizens. The decision comes after the case was thrown out by the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada.

    Sam Ross-Brown and Amanda Teuscher report in The American Prospect that the Department of Labor’s new rules allowing workers at higher income levels to qualify for overtime pay will not only result in an effective raise for millions of people, but will also give workers more control over their work hours and personal lives.

    The Center for Reproductive Rights announced in a press release yesterday that it has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for review of a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. In June, the Fifth Circuit upheld onerous restrictions on abortion clinic access in Texas which, if allowed to stand, would close more than 75 percent of clinics in the state.

  • August 14, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Franita Tolson, the Betty T. Ferguson Professor of Voting Rights, Florida State University College of Law.

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s symposium regarding the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    The fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 provides an opportunity to reflect, not only on its marveled history, but also on the next frontier of voting rights litigation and policy. The Act has faced unprecedented challenges in recent years, culminating in the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Shelby County v. Holder. In Shelby County, the Court invalidated the coverage formula of section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act.  The coverage formula required certain jurisdictions, mostly in the south, to preclear all changes to their electoral laws with the federal government under section 5 of the Act.  The Court found that the formula unduly infringed on the states’ sovereign authority over elections because Congress had not updated the formula in over forty years, and racial discrimination in voting had substantially decreased over this time period. 

    Contrary to the Court’s assertions of post-racialism, the years since Shelby County have welcomed a considerable increase in the number of restrictions designed to undermine the right to vote. According to the Brennan Center, states have introduced 113 bills this year alone that limit access to registration and voting. There also has been litigation challenging voting restrictions in North Carolina and Texas, which enacted very restrictive voting laws immediately following the Shelby County decision.  Unsurprisingly, both the U.S. Department of Justice and private litigants have turned to section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to challenge these provisions after the Supreme Court crippled the preclearance regime of sections 4(b) and 5. Section 2 of the Act forbids any “standard, practice, or procedure” that “results in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”  Unlike the preclearance regime, section 2 applies nationwide and allows plaintiffs to challenge a law after it goes into effect.

    The strategic decision by the Justice Department and private litigants to use section 2 to fill the gap left in the Voting Rights Act post-Shelby County has brought renewed attention to section 2’s constitutionality.  The Supreme Court has never directly addressed this issue, and critics argue that section 2 raises many of the same federalism concerns as the recently invalidated coverage formula.  Texas, in the current litigation over its voter identification law, explicitly argued that it is unconstitutional to apply section 2 to address the racially discriminatory effects of its voter identification law absent a showing that the law is intentionally discriminatory. So far, courts have been unresponsive to this type of argument, but very few courts have confronted the issue in the post-Shelby County world. 

  • August 10, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Tram Nguyen, Co-Executive Director, New Virginia Majority

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s symposium regarding the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    The principle of our democracy rests on the idea that each person has a vote that is cast and counted equally, regardless of who they are or where they come from. Fifty years ago, brave women and men marched across a now infamous bridge in Selma, Alabama, facing violence and risking death, asking only for that simple and fundamental right to vote. Today access to the ballot box is being threatened across the country and the struggle to defend our right to vote is still real.

    Since the Shelby decision eviscerated the protections of the Voting Rights Act for which they fought, emboldened state legislatures across the country, particularly those that were previously covered under pre-clearance requirements, are passing more and more laws making it harder for citizens to vote.

    For years, we in Virginia have been fighting against attacks on our voting rights. Prior to the Shelby decision, we could at least count on the Department of Justice to review proposed voting changes, and we could challenge the laws before they were enacted. Now we are forced to challenge voting restrictions in the courts after they’ve taken effect, which can not only be a costly and lengthy process, but many voters already will have been unable to cast a ballot as a consequence.

    Given the current voting rights landscape, civil rights advocates are getting more creative about how to protect voters from the most negative impacts of such restrictive laws. Across the country, many are looking at ways to work with secretaries of state and other election officials as they adopt regulations to implement these new laws.

    For example, Virginia’s new voter photo ID law went into effect in 2014 without being subject to any sort of review. While the law was passed in 2013, an enactment clause delayed implementation until July 1, 2014, which gave voting rights stakeholders over a year to work with the State Board of Elections on specific regulations. We worked with the State Board of Elections under two different administrations – Governor Bob McDonnell (R) and Governor Terry McAuliffe (D), and ultimately the final regulations had bipartisan support.