Senate Panel Examines Voter Suppression Efforts, Hears Praise for ‘Core’ Provision of Voting Rights Act

December 19, 2012

by Jeremy Leaming

The 2010 elections highlighted the strident efforts of some state lawmakers to make it much more difficult for people to vote, especially for minorities, low-income people, the elderly and college students. Texas, South Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are among the states that created and tried to implement voting laws requiring strict voter IDs, limiting early voting times and hampering voter registration drives.

The Senate Judiciary Committee today conducted a hearing on the state of voting rights after the elections and against the backdrop of another challenge to an integral enforcement provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Beyond bringing stories of what the new restrictive measures wrought, several witnesses provided passionate defenses of the importance of the landmark civil rights law.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires nine states, many in the South, and counties and other localities across the country to obtain “preclearance” of changes to their voting laws from a federal court in Washington, D.C. or the Department of Justice. The states and localities required to win preclearance are those with long histories of suppressing the vote of minorities. (Shelby County, Ala., officials in a case the Supreme Court will hear this term argue that racial discrimination in voting is a thing of the past and should be invalidated. Like several of the Judiciary Committee witnesses, many argue that Sec. 5 is the heart of the Voting Rights Act and works to block discrimination before it occurs.)

Five counties in Florida are covered by the Voting Rights Act. Charles Crist, former governor or Florida, testifying today before the Judiciary Committee, said the last few years in the state have not “been so forward thinking.”

Crist continued, “In 2011, the state legislature voted for and Governor Scott signed a massive elections law designed, I believe, to make it harder for some Floridians to legally vote – and designed to encourage a certain partisan outcome. The law, among other things, put ridiculous restrictions on the rights of everyday law abiding Floridians to register their fellow citizens to vote and reduced the number of early voting days from 14 to 8 – and under the law, before the Justices Department demanded changes, could have reduced early voting hours to as few as 48 in some counties.”

(Justin Levitt, a Loyola law school professor, in an ACS Issue Brief examined the new Florida voting law, saying the reduction was a “significant change for worse,” hitting the African-American and Latino communities the hardest.)

Two other witnesses, S.C. State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter and MADLEF’s Nina Perales provided eloquent and powerful defenses of the Voting Rights Act.

Rep. Cobb-Hunter noted that it was Sec. 5 that kept an onerous voter ID measure, for now, from being implemented. S.C. is one of the nine states covered by Sec. 5.

The State lawmakers pushing the ID law were doing so “to combat non-existent in-person voter fraud ….” She added that during debate of the measure, its proponents were not able to “cite one case as a basis for enacting” the voter ID law. “There’s a good reason for that: studies show that one is more likely to be struck by lightning than to witness an instance of in-person voter fraud.”

But the stringent voter ID measure was enacted. Later the state was denied preclearance. S.C. The DOJ denied preclearance and a federal court said it could not grant preclearance for the 2012 elections.

“Even though our country has made significant progress in combating serious racial discrimination in our political system – in great measure because of the protections afforded under the Voting Rights Act – South Carolina’s efforts to implement a discriminatory photo ID law make plain that there are continuing efforts to deny voters of color the opportunity to participate meaningfully in our shared democracy which require aggressive protection.”    

Nina Perales, vice president of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), joined Rep. Cobb-Hunter in explaining how important the Voting Rights Act’s Sec. 5 is to expanding voting, especially for minorities who have suffered greatly because of efforts to keep them from the polls.

Toward the end of her testimony, Perales (pictured) noted Sec.5’s impact on blocking a stringent voter ID law from taking effect in Texas, saying the provision is “alive and vibrant and it so needed. It is precious to us and it is the core of the most effective piece of civil rights every passed by Congress. Perales full written testimony is here. Video of today’s discussion is here or by clicking on Perales picture.