Voting rights

  • August 6, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Estelle Rogers, Legislative Director, Project Vote

    *This piece originally appeared on Project Vote’s Voting Matters.

    Forty-ninth anniversaries don’t usually garner much attention, but today a 49th anniversary—though filled with pathos—is worth commemorating. The Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1964. Often called the “crown jewel” of the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act has now lost a bit of its luster, tarnished by the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder.

    The passage of the Voting Rights Act took barely four months after the President sent the bill to Congress; he called it “one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom.” And it passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both chambers, foreshadowing the four reauthorization votes that reaffirmed its vitality over the years since. The last, in 2006, passed by a vote of 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House. But no more.

    Since the Supreme Court eviscerated preclearance, one of the most important tools written into the VRA to fight racial discrimination, the law’s historical bipartisan support seems but a distant memory.  Preclearance requires states and smaller jurisdictions with particularly troubling histories of voting discrimination to secure federal approval in advance for any voting changes. The law swept broadly, recognizing that even seemingly trivial statutory or administrative changes often operate to disadvantage racial and language minorities. One of its most significant advantages was to mitigate the necessity to file expensive and time-consuming lawsuits to redress voting discrimination on a case-by-case basis. As part of the VRA, it was reauthorized four times. But no more.

  • August 1, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Atiba R. Ellis, Associate Professor, West Virginia University College of Law

    *Noting the 50th anniversaries of Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ACSblog is hosting a symposium including posts and interviews from some of the nation’s leading scholars and civil rights activists.

    As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, and the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Summer protest, it is well worth reflecting on the how the movement challenged us to not only establish formal legal equality, but also to address enduring poverty. The Civil Rights Movement sought to persuade America that all Americans are equal. The Freedom Summer riders (and the many, many more who pressed for civil rights) sought to expose the inequality and oppression in the segregated south of 1964.

    The passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, still impact us today.  These enactments represent significant progress towards the goal of fostering equality. Moreover, with the contemporary tide of referenda and judicial rulings on marriage equality, the Civil Rights Movement continues to evolve to protect many people who fifty years ago weren’t deemed deserving of civil rights.

    Though we think of Martin Luther King, Jr., Freedom Summer, and formal legal equality when we think about the Civil Rights Movement, we should also remember that the struggle is really, as historian Jacqueline Dowd Hall explained, a “long civil rights movement.”  Hall’s work locates the genesis of the twentieth century movement in the 1930s with the social transformations that occurred due to economic disruption of the Great Depression.  Moreover, the long arc of legal transformation to foster equality began with the Civil War and the Reconstruction Amendments.  The civil rights struggle began with confronting the subordination and poverty slavery created.

    In this sense, the long civil rights struggle had economic equality of opportunity at its core from the beginning. As Jeremy Leaming discussed on this blog, the question of racial equality in twenty-first century America is at a crossroads in light of retrenchment in civil and voting rights.  Yet racial inequality and poverty walk hand and hand and continue to affect the lived experiences of people of color.

    NPR host Michel Martin recently wrote an article in the National Journal, discussing the key obstacles that women of color continue to face in the twenty-first century.  In discussing this article on NPR’s All Things Considered (where she called her essay her own “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”) she explained how poverty creates an enduring problem for racial minorities:

    People of color particularly — but not exclusively blacks and Latinos — are connected to poverty and to disadvantage in ways that often our white colleagues don't understand. That causes you to have to think about things that they aren't thinking about. And that's the kind of thing that I really feel a need to call attention to.

    Martin’s words -- especially as they reflect her own experience navigating the intersection of race and class-- remind us that poverty daily affects the lives of people of color, no matter how affluent.  Indeed, it is a yet-to-be-fulfilled civil rights issue of the long civil rights movement.

  • August 1, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Estelle H. Rogers, Legislative Director, Project Vote

    Not long ago in these virtual “pages,” I opined that judges were beginning to “get it” -- to understand that the enticing but superficial reasonableness of requiring photo ID to vote is far from the whole story. Yesterday, we encountered several judges who don’t get it at all, and Wisconsin’s voters are the worse for it.

    League of Women Voters v. Walker and Milwaukee Branch of the NAACP v. Walker were split decisions in which majorities of the Wisconsin Supreme Court held the state’s strict photo ID law (”Act 23”) constitutional under the Wisconsin constitution, the same state constitution whose explicit right to vote provision led to contrary rulings by the trial courts in both cases.

    It is tempting at this point simply to quote extensively from the dissenters, among whom Shirley Abrahamson, the octogenarian Chief Justice of the court, stands out in her steadfast refusal to follow the majority’s tortured logic -- or rather, tortured conclusion.  It cannot really be called logic.

    In NAACP, for example, the court construed a state regulation – not even properly before it – that explicitly required certain documentary proof in order to receive the free ID.  Recognizing that obtaining those underlying documents may involve a fee, the court “saved” the regulation, and thus Act 23, by declaring that the need for underlying documents may be excused (though granting such an excuse rests in the discretion of state bureaucrats).  Therefore requiring photo ID does not constitute an undue burden.  Therefore it must be analyzed under a rational basis test.  Therefore as long as it is rationally related to a legitimate government interest, it is constitutional. 

    What is the legitimate government interest?  Prevention of fraud, of course.  Never mind that the one example of fraud advanced by the state in both cases was allegedly committed by a supporter of Governor Walker in his recall election, who has now been indicted on 13 felony counts of voter fraud for, inter alia, registering more than once, voting multiple times, voting where he didn’t live, and lying to election officials.  None of these offenses would have been prevented by the strict photo voter ID law at issue in the case, and indeed, all of them were discovered without such a law in effect.

  • August 1, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Joshua A. DouglasRobert G. Lawson & William H. Fortune Associate Professor of Law, University of Kentucky College of Law

    *This post was originally published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

    The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Thursday issued two decisions that had the effect of upholding the state's strict voter ID requirement. Crucial to the court's decisions was its finding that, once it modified a different rule, the voter ID law did not impose too substantial of a burden on qualified voters who do not otherwise have the necessary identification.

    The split decisions entail both breathtaking judicial activism and ignorance regarding the difference between the federal and state constitutions.

    First, the conservative-leaning majority found that the voter ID law imposed a severe burden on voters because it would cost money for voters to gather the underlying documentation they might need — such as a birth certificate — to obtain the "free" voter ID. But the majority then forges ahead to adopt a "saving construction" of a state administrative rule to conclude that the law does not, really, require voters to pay money to obtain the documentation. It rewrites the administrative rule so that the voter ID law does not become an unconstitutional poll tax.

    To justify this maneuver, the court cites a U.S. Supreme Court decision that states "where a saving construction is 'fairly possible,' the court will adopt it." But that U.S. Supreme Court case said no such thing; it instead noted that if a saving construction of the very statute at issue is possible, then the court should avoid the constitutional question and decide the case under that statutory ground.

    Here, by contrast, there was no "fairly possible" construction of the voter ID law. Instead, the court requires state administrators to invoke their "discretion" under a separate administrative regulation — one that was not at issue in the case — to give voter IDs to voters who must pay money to obtain the underlying documentation.

    Second, the court conflated the U.S. and Wisconsin constitutions to uphold the law. The plaintiffs challenged the law under the Wisconsin constitution provision that provides, "Every United States citizen age 18 or older who is a resident of an election district in this state is a qualified elector of that district." The plaintiff's argument, in essence, was that the burdens associated with obtaining the required voter ID took away the constitutionally granted right to vote for some citizens.

  • July 24, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Franita Tolson, Betty T. Ferguson Professor of Voting Rights, Florida State University College of Law; Faculty Advisor, Florida State University College of Law ACS Student Chapter

    The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a landmark piece of legislation, responsible for eradicating much of the discrimination that racial minorities confronted in places of public accommodation such as hotels, restaurants and movie theatres; in seeking employment and applying for public benefits and in attending integrated public schools. Among its many accomplishments, the Act also laid the groundwork for nondiscriminatory access to the ballot. In particular, Title I of the Act provides that, “All citizens of the United States who are otherwise qualified by law to vote at any election by the people in any State, Territory, district, county, city, etc. … shall be entitled and allowed to vote at all such elections, without distinction of race, color, or previous condition of servitude ....” Despite a promising start, this provision quickly fell into relative obscurity because the Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed a little over a year after Title I, imposed more stringent restrictions on racial discrimination in voting.

    Recent cases illustrate that the time has come to revisit Title I of the Civil Rights Act.  In Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court invalidated section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act which, together with section 5, required certain jurisdictions to preclear all changes to their electoral laws with the federal government before the changes could go into effect. The preclearance regime was a type of federal receivership for jurisdictions, mostly in the south, that had pervasively discriminated against African Americans in order to ensure that any new laws would not undermine minority voting rights. In the year since Shelby County, the loss of the preclearance regime has forced advocates to be more aggressive in using creative legal arguments in voting rights litigation. For example, in Frank v. Walker, a federal district court judge invalidated Wisconsin’s voter identification law, the first successful challenge to these restrictions using section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 2 prohibits states from abridging the right to vote on the basis of race and applies nationwide.

    Like section 2, Title I of the Civil Rights Act stands as a possible litigation alternative to the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. In addition to its general requirement of nondiscriminatory access to the ballot, section 2(A) of Title I provides that, “No person acting under color of law shall in determining whether any individual is qualified under State law or laws to vote in any election, apply any standard, practice, or procedure different from the standards, practices, or procedures applied under such law or laws to other individuals within the same county, parish, or similar political subdivision who have been found by State officials to be qualified to vote.” This provision prevents states from applying voter qualification standards differently to similarly situated individuals.