Voting rights

  • February 4, 2014
    The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first bill signed into law by President Obama in 2009 and has been a vital tool in the battle against wage discrimination ever since. Writing for Roll Call on the anniversary of the bill’s passage, Lilly Ledbetter and the American Civil Liberties Union’s Deborah J. Vagins reflect on the legacy of the Ledbetter Act, the importance of the proposed Paycheck Fairness Act and the necessity of executive order.
    Last year, the Senate eliminated its 60-vote supermajority requirement for most judicial and executive appointments after Senate Republicans chose to filibuster an egregious number of President Obama’s nominees. In an article for The Blog of Legal Times, Todd Ruger explains why it is likely that the Senate’s power to filibuster nominations will remain applicable to our nation’s highest court.
    Writing for the Center for American Progress, Joshua Field examines the current state of the Voting Rights Act, post-Shelby County. In his report, Field addresses the need to combat voting-related discrimination and the role our federal courts must play going forward.
    In an article for The National Law Journal, Tony Mauro examines the ACLU’s First Amendment fight against the Supreme Court’s ban on protesting on the Court’s plaza.
  • January 23, 2014
    Guest Post
    by Marian Schneider, Senior Attorney, Advancement Project
    In a win for democracy, last Friday Judge Bernard J. McGinley of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania struck down Pennsylvania’s voter ID law. Among other problems cited in the court’s decision, this restrictive law violated the right to vote, which is expressly guaranteed in Pennsylvania’s Constitution. The decision is important not only because hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania voters, who lack one of the limited forms of acceptable photo ID previously required under the law, can now cast their ballots without burdensome obstacles – but also because of the court’s willingness to enforce the guarantee of a fundamental right to vote as enshrined in the Pennsylvania Constitution.
    Unlike the U.S. Constitution, the Pennsylvania Constitution explicitly recognizes the right to vote, stating that “no power, civil or military, shall at any time interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage.” The Commonwealth Court reaffirmed that this right is fundamental, as well as “pervasive of other basic civil and political rights.” As the court explained, elections are “free and equal” only when they are public and open to all qualified voters, when every voter has the same opportunity to cast a ballot, when that ballot is honestly counted, and when the regulation of elections does not deny the exercise of the right to vote.
    According to the court, the voter ID law violated the state constitution because it required photo ID without mandating any legal, non-burdensome way for voters to get it. Instead, the measure merely required that the existing non-driver photo ID issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) be provided for “free.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, however, already held in 2012 that PennDOT failed to uphold that requirement because of the underlying documents required, such as a birth certificate (which can be costly or, in some cases, not exist at all); the limited PennDOT locations where ID cards were even available; and the burdens faced by voters who had to travel to one of these centers and wait in line to get an ID. In light of these obstacles, the Department of State attempted to create a “just for voting” ID (DOS ID), but the Commonwealth Court held that this ID was an unauthorized agency creation that failed to pass constitutional muster. The DOS ID suffered from similar problems as the PennDOT ID because it created barriers that prevented voters who lacked compliant ID from getting it.
  • January 17, 2014
    Yesterday, a bipartisan, bicameral group of legislators introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, legislation sponsored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) in the House and by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in the Senate.  The bill represents a much-needed and significant first step in the effort to respond to the void left by the Supreme Court’s decision seven months ago in Shelby County v. Holder that invalidated a key portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (“VRA”).
    Before Shelby, Section 5 of the VRA required certain jurisdictions with a documented history of racial discrimination in voting to submit any changes in voting laws and procedures to either the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) or a three-judge panel of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia for review, a process known as “preclearance.”  Most voting changes in these “covered jurisdictions” were approved quickly and routinely, but practices that were found by DOJ or the court to be racially discriminatory were blocked from taking effect.  However, in Shelby, a five-justice majority invalidated the coverage formula used to determine which jurisdictions were covered by Section 5, finding that it was outdated and insufficiently tailored to the existence of racial discrimination in voting today.  The Court took this unprecedented step even though Congress had overwhelmingly voiced its determination – by votes of 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House – that the coverage formula was appropriately responsive to continued racial discrimination in voting in the covered jurisdictions.
    As a result of the Court’s decision, Section 5 was effectively nullified.  The weeks and months following Shelby confirmed that while our Nation has made great strides towards addressing racial discrimination in voting, such discrimination has not been eradicated, as several previously covered states and jurisdictions swiftly enacted laws that would have been subject to preclearance – and potentially blocked – prior to Shelby.
  • November 26, 2013
    This past June, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision in “arguably one of the most successful acts passed by Congress in any area,” said Richard Reuben, the James Lewis Parks Professor of Law at the University of Missouri School of Law, at a recent event on Shelby County v. Holder hosted by the ACS University of Missouri School of Law Student Chapter.
    The affected provision of the Voting Rights Act, Section 4(b), contains the coverage formula for determining which jurisdictions are subject to a preclearance requirement before they can amend their voting laws. Section 5 details the logistics of the requirement, which was designed to target states and local governments with a history of discriminatory practices. By declaring Section 4(b) unconstitutional under the claim that the formula was based on obsolete data, the Court essentially nullified Section 5. States that were once required to have a federal court or the Department of Justice sign off on changes to voter law may now proceed unchecked.
    In an ACS National conference call – “After Shelby County: The Future of the Voting Rights Act” – Julie Fernandes, Senior Policy Analyst at the Open Society Foundations and former Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the Department of Justice, discussed how the legislation can combat discriminatory practices without Sections 4(b) and 5. In particular, she named Section 2 and Section 3(c) as candidates.
    Appeals to Section 2 result from policies or practices in voting areas with a discriminatory purpose or result. Sadly, explained Ms. Fernandes, these after-the-fact remedies often take a long time, are very expensive and result in complicated litigation. Violations of the Fifteenth Amendment may also be remedied by preclearance requirements set forth in Section 3(c). Yet intentional discrimination must be a predicate in these cases, she said, and courts do not often find said discrimination.
    In a post-Shelby world, Ms. Fernandes identified the need for a new, data-driven preclearance formula; the expansion of federal courts’ ability to institute preclearance requirements; and public notice and disclosure of voting law changes.
  • November 5, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Several years before the U.S. Supreme Court greatly hobbled the landmark Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, a federal appeals court circuit provided a significant boost to ignoble state efforts to suppress the votes of minorities, students, the poor and the elderly. In Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit turned away a constitutional challenge and upheld a stringent voter ID law in Indiana.

    Recently Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner, who authored the Court’s opinion that was subsequently upheld the by the U.S. Supreme Court, said he erred. Posner (pictured), who now says laws like Indiana’s are “widely regarded” as tools to suppress the vote, suggested that his error in Crawford was partly due to poor presentation of the evidence that the law would disproportionately suppress groups of voters. (In this piece for ACSblog, longtime Supreme Court litigator Paul M. Smith, who argued Crawford before the high court, explains why Posner had plenty of compelling information to vote the other way and invalidate the Indiana law.)

    In a piece for The National Law Journal, Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, addressing Posner’s comments, goes further, noting that far too many judges view constitutional challenges to state Voter ID laws with “skepticism.”

    Ifill writes, “Without a doubt, lawyers advancing claims of discrimination should have to prove their case. But judges also should be aware of their own lack of experience and knowledge.”

    For example, Ifill cites a 2010 opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit that rejected a racial discrimination lawsuit, claiming there was not sufficient evidence that a white supervisor calling a black worker “boy” amounted to racism. Ifill then turned to the more recent Shelby County opinion, where the high court’s conservative justices banded together to decided “that they were better positioned than Congress to determine whether racial discrimination in voting still justifies the coverage regime that existed under” the Voting Rights Act. “Not even 15,000 pages of evidence and testimony could convince the court that Congress got it right.”

    The problem here, Ifill explains is that we all imagine we are experts on what accounts for discrimination. The truth is we are not, including judges. “We are too often,” Ifill writes “unwilling or unable to defer to the substantiated experiences of those who stand directly vulnerable to discrimination in voting, housing, employment and countless other arenas.”

    And many voters, primarily minorities, continue to suffer as state after state creates new and onerous hurdles to voting. Posner may now be able to acknowledge what many others do – too many state voter ID laws are all about suppressing the vote. But as Ifill explains, many judges are just ill-equipped to understand the scope and depth of discrimination despite the evidence provided them.

    For detailed information on state restrictions on voting, see the ACS’s Voting Rights Resources.