Voting Rights

  • February 23, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Harry Baumgarten, Inaugural Partner Legal Fellow at the Voting Rights Institute

    This post originally appeared on the blog of the Campaign Legal Center.

    Members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives will gather tomorrow to award the foot soldiers of Bloody Sunday, Turnaround Tuesday and the final Selma to Montgomery March with the Congressional Gold Medal. This award constitutes the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress and marks a fitting tribute to the brave men and women who risked life and limb so that “every American citizen would be able to exercise their constitutional right to vote and have their voices heard.”

    Yet, however befitting and overdue this award may be, we must not accept it as a substitute for meaningful legislative action to safeguard the fundamental right to vote.

    Minority voting rights are perhaps more imperiled today than at any time since these brave marchers gathered at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. Just three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, despite four reauthorizations and thousands of pages of congressional findings that showcased why the law was still needed. The 2013 decision, Shelby County v. Holder, dismantled the VRA’s coverage formula, which determined which states and local jurisdictions were required to gain approval from the Department of Justice or a federal court before making changes to their electoral laws and procedures due to histories of racial discrimination in voting.

    Many of the states that would have once needed to seek preclearance from the DOJ acted within hours of the Supreme Court’s ruling, implementing onerous voting restrictions, such as voter ID laws, that had the intent and effect of burdening minority access to the polls. These laws threaten to disenfranchise millions of people across the country and would previously have been barred by the Voting Rights Act. Scarily, without congressional action, 2016 will likely mark the first presidential election in more than 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.

  • October 27, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Marissa Liebling, Legislative Director, Project Vote

    The year before a major election has brought about a flurry of legislative activity impacting voter eligibility and election procedures. Each week, Project Vote tracks such legislation and voting-related news throughout the country. Our biannual Legislative Threats and Opportunities report summarizes and highlights the information obtained from three areas: our ongoing bill tracking effort, our work with local advocates and officials, and a compilation of information on related factors like the partisan makeup of legislatures and state election officials. The report provides an important snapshot of activity by issue area and by state so we can reflect on current trends and prepare for the future.

    The good news: Recent policy trends favor voting rights expansion and election modernization over unnecessary restrictions that limit access to our democracy. Comparing the rates of both bill introduction and successful bill passage, proposals expanding voter access far outpaced those seeking to limit and restrict the right to vote. While positive legislation covered many areas, from restoring voting rights for disenfranchised felons to providing early voting, online registration and automatic registration dominated the year.

    Automatic registration leaped atop the priority list for many advocates and lawmakers. Oregon passed a law enabling the automatic registration of eligible residents using information collected by the state’s motor vehicle agency. An avalanche of registration modernization legislation followed, with California passing a similar law. While proposals vary in name and substance, automatic registration and electronic transfer policies seek to improve outdated processes and shift the burden now on citizens to proactively opt-in and maintain records in order to exercise a fundamental right.

    If automatic registration is trendy, online registration is becoming the norm. This year, online registration laws passed in three states, while two states launched online registration sites through administrative action. More states are expected to bring registration online in the coming year. Efficient and convenient, paperless registration sites are now available in a majority of states. 

  • 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 15, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Victorien Wu, Fried Frank Fellow, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s 2015 Constitution Day Symposium.

    The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution hold the promise of equal political citizenship for Black voters. Yet, this commitment remains unfulfilled in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, where, in 2008, a white sitting judge of the parish court, Judge Timothy Ellender of the 32nd Judicial District Court (“32nd JDC”), was reelected to a six-year term without having to face opposition, even after he was suspended by the Louisiana Supreme Court in 2004 for attending a Halloween party wearing blackface, an orange prison jumpsuit, handcuffs, and an afro wig in an apparent parody of Black criminal defendants who appeared before him.

    The reelection of Judge Ellender to his seat in 2008 was made possible by the discriminatory method of election that the state of Louisiana uses for the 32nd JDC. Each of the five judges of that court is elected at-large from the parish, meaning that all voters in the parish can cast a ballot in electing each of the five judges. However, Black voters constitute a minority of the electorate (at 20 percent), and voting in Terrebonne is deeply polarized along racial lines. In seven elections that were conducted at large in Terrebonne between 1993 and 2014 and that featured at least one Black candidate and at least one white candidate, Black candidates preferred by the Black community received an average of 87 percent of Black voter support, but an average of only 8 percent of white voter support.

    As a consequence, under at-large voting in Terrebonne, the preferred candidates of Black voters have been consistently defeated, regardless of whether the candidate has run as a Democrat, as a Republican or otherwise. For example, in the 1994 election for the 32nd JDC, Anthony Lewis, a Democrat and the only Black candidate, received about 73 percent of Black voter support, but only 1 percent of white voter support, thus losing the election. Reflecting the same dynamic 20 years later, in the 2014 election for the Houma City Court, another court in the parish, Cheryl Carter, a Republican and the only Black candidate, received about 85 percent of Black voter support, but only 8 percent of white voter support. As a result, she too lost the election.