Voting Rights Act

  • February 9, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Katherine Culliton-González, Chair, Voting Rights Committee of the Hispanic National Bar Association

    This morning the D.C. Circuit federal court heard important oral argument about the fundamental right to vote of persons born in the United States.  That’s right—in Tuana v. United States, the federal court will decide whether U.S. nationals have the right to vote. 

    Like millions of U.S. citizens born in Puerto Rico, millions of “nationals” born in the “unincorporated U.S. territories” in American Samoa and other Pacific Islands cannot vote in the elections of the country that governs their existence.  The overwhelming majority are voters of color—and as we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, we must wonder why any U.S. citizen or “national” governed by our laws and subject to our jurisdiction would be so flatly and unequivocally denied the fundamental right to vote. 

    Puerto Ricans living on the Island cannot vote in federal elections because they have only limited citizenship under the Jones Act of 1917.  Yet they serve in the military and must abide by the laws of the United States.  Puerto Rico is home to nearly 4 million Latino U.S. citizens who cannot vote to elect congressional representatives or the president.  This Catch-22 can also be traced to a controversial series of Reconstruction-era Supreme Court decisions known as the Insular Cases, which created a doctrine of “separate and unequal” status for more than 4 million Americans living in “unincorporated U.S. territories” such as American Samoans.  First Circuit Judge Juan Torruella argued at a Harvard Law School conference that “the Insular Cases should be soundly rejected because they represent the thinking of a morally bankrupt era in our history that goes against the most basic precept for which this nation stands: the equality before the law of all of its citizens.” 

  • January 19, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Elise C. Boddie, Associate Professor of Law, Rutgers University-Newark; former director of litigation NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, Inc.; and a member of the ACS Board of Directors.

    One of the many indelible images of the civil rights era is a black and white picture of an African-American boy, maybe nine or ten years old, holding a poster in front of the Dallas County courthouse in Selma, Alabama. The year is 1964. The boy’s small hands are clutched around the edges of his poster, which in plain, scrawled lettering, calls for people to register to vote in the name of “freedom.”   We cannot see his eyes because they are averted from the camera.  Instead, he has fixed his gaze on a group of policemen who are about to descend upon him and, as we later learn, arrest him just after the picture is taken.[1]

    The picture is a reminder that the right to vote is more literally secure than it was in Selma in 1964.  Less than a year later, Selma would emerge as the birthplace of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, following a march from Selma to Montgomery, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a host of civil rights leaders, including now-Congressman John Lewis.  An earlier attempted march to Montgomery led demonstrators over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they were beaten mercilessly by Alabama state troopers before having to turn back, all in full view of the national press.[2]  The horror and disgrace of that moment helped catalyze national support and the political will to pass voting rights legislation.[3]

    We rightly celebrate and honor Dr. King as the “drum major for justice”[4] who helped bring that fight to fruition, along with the countless, nameless thousands – the young Selma boy among them –  who laid their bodies on the line so that future generations could exercise their constitutional rights.   The police no longer beat African Americans in the street for trying to register; and literacy tests, which barred so many Blacks, Latinos, and other people of color from voting, no longer exist as a result of the 1965 Act.  The frontal indignities of Jim Crow at least are gone.

    And yet, like a weed with roots deep beneath the surface, other practices soon emerged in their place, including at-large voting schemes,[5] racially-discriminatory annexations[6] and redistricting plans that sought to “crack” or “pack” minority voters in order to dilute their voting strength.[7]   Evidence of this adaptive discrimination carries through to the present.  For example, following the record turnout of voters of color for Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections states enacted restrictive laws that made it harder to vote.[8]

    Against a record of  “unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution,”[9] Congress included in the Voting Rights Act a core provision that limited the authority of states with “the most aggravated records of rank discrimination against minority voting rights”[10] to unilaterally change their voting practices.  This “preclearance” provision, known as Section 5, required covered jurisdictions with certain indicia of low voter participation to secure federal approval of any proposed voting changes[11] by demonstrating that they would not disfranchise minority voters.[12]  In a landmark case, South Carolina v. Katzenbach, the Supreme Court upheld the Act against a constitutional challenge,[13] as it would in later cases brought by jurisdictions that sought to evade the statutory protections for minority voters.[14]  In 2013, however, the Supreme Court gutted Section 5 in Shelby County v. Holder, striking down a companion provision that established the scope of Section 5’s geographic coverage.[15]  While acknowledging that voting discrimination persists, [16] the Court concluded that the coverage provision no longer reflected the most “current” manifestations of such discrimination.  In light of “dramatic” improvements in the landscape of voter suppression, the Act’s incursion on the “equal sovereignty” of the states was no longer justified.[17]   

    After Shelby, fifteen states enacted laws that discouraged voter participation.[18]  Although the precise impact of these laws is hard to determine, voters of color appear to have been disproportionately affected in at least five states – Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia, each of which had been covered by the Act’s preclearance provision before Shelby and each of which had also experienced a significant increase in the population of voters of color.[19]  Thus, in a time of burgeoning “minority” voting power, states have actively sought to limit accessibility to the polls.  The timing, of course, is hardly coincidental, but rather – as a Texas federal district court judge concluded with respect to that state’s photo identification law[20] – appears calculated to suppress minority turnout.[21]

  • November 19, 2014

    by Caroline Cox

    Simon Lazarus argues at The New Republic that supporters of the Affordable Care Act are inadvertently recycling conservative arguments when defending the healthcare law against the latest legal challenge.

    At The Economist’s Democracy in America blog, Steve Mazie considers empathy on the Supreme Court. He argues that their “small and privileged” circles limit their perspectives.

    Stephanie Mencimer discusses the Alabama redistricting cases for Mother Jones, arguing that the state that helped gut the Voting Rights Act is now using it to justify racial gerrymandering.

    Oliver Roeder of FiveThirtyEight explains why it is so difficult to predict Supreme Court rulings.

    At CNN, Ed O’Keefe reports on Justice Samuel Alito’s recent remarks about the press and criticisms of the Court’s lack of diversity. 

  • November 7, 2014

    by Abbie Kamin, Legal Research & Communications Associate for the Lone Star Project and Field Director for the Campaign Legal Center’s Voter ID Assistance Pilot Program in Harris County, TX.

    Tuesday’s Election was a loss for voting rights throughout the country. While countless citizens could not vote because of the implementation of discriminatory voting laws, one can only hope these experiences in Tuesday’s election will galvanize the civil rights community to push even harder to breath life back into the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Until Congress amends the VRA, costly and time-consuming state-by-state litigation will be the key to protecting the right to vote.

    Discriminatory voting laws have already been enacted in several states via highly restrictive voter photo-ID requirements. Because these restrictive laws are working, effectively preventing many citizens from voting, we will likely see an increase in these types of laws

    We have seen first-hand here in Texas the enactment of suppressive voting measures by our state legislature, leading to separate court findings of intentional discrimination by the State on three different measures: congressional redistricting, state senate redistricting, and voter photo ID (SB 14). Texas has been at the forefront of recent efforts to discriminate against minority voters.

  • November 3, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Atiba R. Ellis, Associate Professor of Law, West Virginia University College of Law. Follow Professor Ellis on Twitter @atibaellis

    The debate over voter identification laws in this election season has shown once again that the voter fraud debate has shaped the right to vote over the last decade.  Recently, voter identification laws in Wisconsin, North Carolina and Texas – passed on the belief that the integrity of elections must be defended against the imminent threat of voters who will impersonate other voters and otherwise commit fraud—has spurred substantial litigation and, most recently, generated a hotly contested denial of a stay of the Texas voter ID law over a scathing dissent from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

    Scholars like Lorraine Minnite, Richard Hasen, Justin Levitt and others, have shown that this voter fraud claim is a myth. Yet, right-leaning pundits like Hans von Spakofsky and Mona Charen have argued that voter fraud will likely occur in the 2014 election. Thus, some pundits, politicians and grassroots organizations like True the Vote see rampant voter fraud as real and looming, despite all research to the contrary.

    This voter fraud claim is often seen as partisan-motivated propaganda or a means perpetuating racial subordination – some call it the return of Jim Crow. Yet, as I argue in an article recently published in the Catholic University Law Review, these claims must be connected to the long saga of voter suppression in the United States. In The Meme of Voter Fraud (also available here), I explain that the voter fraud myth is the latest step in the evolution of the American ideology of exclusion – the belief that “unworthy” citizens should be excluded from the electorate. 

    A meme (an idea based on evolutionary theory) is any idea, belief, concept or behavior that spreads and replicates in the culture. Memes replicate through, among other ways, the sharing of narratives, teaching, or posting on the Internet (think cat videos!). Memes are appealing because they play into a person’s experiences, and on some level people identify with them. This fact prompts a person to share the idea, and the most attractive memes spread virally. As a meme spreads, people often modify it to attract a broader audience.  The new recipients will in turn transform the meme again and replicate it, causing it to evolve (and the changes that fail cause that particular meme to die off). A meme’s appeal and its ability to meet our psychological needs – for instance, for political or social power – causes people to spread memes, not the truth or falsity of the meme.

    People can connect one meme with other memes to develop a complex set of ideas – an ideology – which we use to view the world. And, as scholar J.M. Balkin has observed, ideologies that spur us to action to subjugate the rights of others inevitably result in injustice. Memes can enable power plays, and those most invested in maintaining that power maintain the meme to this end, despite any oppression that might occur.