voter suppression laws

  • June 27, 2013
    Guest Post

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

    In  Shelby County, AL v. Holder, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision split on ideological lines, declared unconstitutional the formula used under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to determine which states and localities must receive pre-approval of their voting rights laws. This decision, which effectively ends the preclearance practice meant to preserve minority voting rights, will transform the right to vote for years to come. Once again, relying on the myth of racial progress, the Supreme Court failed to confront the racial balkanization in voting that exists, and it ultimately crippled the role that Voting Rights Act has in limiting it.

    This lawsuit was brought by Shelby County, Ala. This county, along with the rest of Alabama, as well as Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Alaska, Arizona, and parts of seven other states (known as the “covered jurisdictions”) was required under Section Five of the Voting Rights Act to have any change in their election laws approved (or “precleared”) by the U.S. Department of Justice. The covered jurisdictions were selected for the preclearance requirement according to a formula set out in Section Four of the act. The formula considered the jurisdiction’s past history of voting rights violations, current violations, white and minority voting rates, and other factors.  Shelby County argued that both Section Five’s preclearance requirement and Section Four’s coverage formula were unconstitutional. The Court struck down the Section Four formula.

    Chief Justice Roberts' opinion for the five-justice conservative majority relied on two premises. First, the opinion stated that each state is due “equal sovereignty,” that is each state has power to regulate matters left to the states, including voting, to the same extent as other states. As innocuous as that might sound, consider Roberts’s second premise:  “the conditions that originally justified [the preclearance measures that justified differing treatment of states] no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.” Slip op. at 2.  Roberts pointed to substantial progress in voter participation and the increase in minority elected officials in the time from the passage of the act until now.  Id. at 13-15. Yet, Roberts continued, the current coverage formula does not reflect this reality.  “Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices.”  Slip op. at 18.  “Racial disparity in those numbers was compelling evidence justifying the preclearance remedy and the coverage formula. There is no longer such a disparity.”  Id. 

  • January 23, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Lawmakers in Congress are not giving up on an effort to counter some of the state laws that have made it increasingly difficult to vote and that helped create long lines and waiting times for voters during November’s general elections.

    Earlier today, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), and other House members, reintroduced the Voter Empowerment Act, while Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced a companion version in the Senate.

    Over the past couple of years, state Republican lawmakers have created, with varying degrees of success, hurdles to voting. Those obstacles, such as limiting early voting, creating onerous voter ID requirements, and making it more difficult to conduct voter registration drives, were targeted largely at urban voters, minorities, college students and the elderly. (Victoria Bassetti, author of Electoral Dysfunction: A Survival Manual for American Voters wrote last fall about the cumbersome voting process in America, saying it mystified other countries. “In the United States, we put the burden on the voter. And in doing so, we keep company with nations such as the Bahamas, Belize and Burundi,” she wrote for The Washington Post.

    During the lame-duck session of Congress, the Senate Judiciary Committee conducted a hearing to examine some of measures hampering voters, and several of those measures were produced by states, such as Texas, South Carolina, and parts of Florida that are covered by the Voting Rights Act. Specifically Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires covered jurisdictions – those with the worst histories and patterns of racial discrimination in voting – to obtain preclearance for any changes to their voting procedures from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C. Several of the witnesses argued that beyond new federal efforts to modernize voting nationwide, Section 5 was still essential to ensure that newly created voting procedures do not discriminate against minority voters. (The U.S. Supreme Court will soon hear oral arguments in a case from Shelby County, Ala., challenging the constitutionality of Section 5.)

  • November 13, 2012

    by LaShawn Y. Warren

    As we move past the 2012 elections and turn our eyes toward a host of pressing political, social, and economic issues, we must not lose sight of the continuing voting challenges unearthed by these elections. While significant progress has been made to expand access to the ballot box, we cannot ignore the persistent attempts to thwart participation through onerous photo ID requirements and other voting restrictions. Last week’s elections clearly demonstrated just how much more improvement is needed. Poorly trained poll workers, machine breakdowns, and inaccurate voter registration lists produced long lines that forced voters to wait hours simply to vote.

    In Florida, voters were still waiting in line at two in the morning, as President Obama ended his victory speech. This was in addition to arbitrary rules for in-person absentee balloting, voting machines paper jams, and election officials in one Florida county informing voters they could vote through Wednesday! Fortunately, this was not a close election and a dramatic replay of 2000 was avoided, but the potential for electoral chaos remains systemic in the administration of our elections. As a key battleground state, the spotlight is frequently on voting issues in Florida, but these types of problems occur over and over again across the nation. 

    In a country that leads the world in the development of trend setting technology, it is difficult to imagine why our elections remain so antiquated. “We’re the greatest democracy in the world,” Tom Brokaw said, covering yet another election night. “But when voting time comes, we do everything but get a candle and a nightgown and walk in somewhere and make a mark with a sharp stick of some kind.  It's crazy.” It is more than crazy; it is shameful. Voting is essential to our constitutional order and the health of our democracy. It is central to the essence of citizenship. We should pride ourselves in making it easy for citizens to participate in the political process.

  • September 5, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    In a burst of action, federal courts have provided setbacks to the right’s desperate and disgraceful efforts to suppress the vote, as noted here last week. Hardly surprising is that some of the rightwing lawmakers pushing ridiculous voter ID laws, limits on early voting periods and voter registration drives, are going to fight the federal courts to protect their ignoble campaign.

    Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a loud proponent of Ohio’s efforts to limit early voting opportunities of urban voters, has proclaimed that voting in his state will be “uniform and accessible for hard-working Ohioans.” It’s a statement as laughable as it is disingenuous. Ohio, like Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, has sought to make voting much more difficult for a lot of hard-working residents, primarily those living in urban areas. In Ohio no efforts were made to curtail early-voting for suburban residents.

    So when a federal judge recently ruled in favor of the Obama campaign’s legal challenge to Ohio’s restrictions, issuing an injunction against limits on early voting, it was widely received as a much-needed victory against the ongoing campaign to suppress the votes of minorities, low-income people, college students and the elderly.

    U.S. District Court Judge Peter Economus held that curtailment of early voting opportunities would close the door to thousands of voters. He added, “Plaintiffs submit statistical studies to support their assertion that low-income and minority voters are disproportionately affected by the elimination of those voting days.” See Ryan J. Reilly’s reporting for TPM on the decision.

    Reilly today noted that the Obama administration has lodged a motion with the federal court urging it to ensure that Ohio follow the court order, after Husted said he “wouldn’t set early voting hours until an appeals court” took action. As Reilly reported, the Obama campaign officials argued in their motion that Husted cannot ignore or stay a federal court opinion, a federal appeals court gets to make that call. 

    University of Maryland law school professor Sherrilyn A. Ifill in a piece for The Root blasted the Republican Party’s “war on voting,” likening it to the efforts employed by pre-civil rights-era Southern states “to manipulate the voting strength of the electorate.”

  • August 17, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Earlier in the week the rightwing push for new restrictions on voting received support of a Pennsylvania state court judge, who failed to see how the state’s strict voter ID law could keep people from the polls. But the effort in Florida to curtail voting opportunities, also led by conservative policymakers, found resistance late yesterday from a federal court in D.C. that concluded the state’s measure to limit earlier voting opportunities disproportionally targeted African-Americans.

    Like a string of other statehouses, mostly controlled by Republicans, Florida lawmakers implemented an overhaul of voting procedures in the state, which included rigid voter ID requirements, an attempt to hamper voter registration drives and limitations on early voting opportunities. Fla. Gov. Rick Scott has also urged county officials to purge voter rolls. The Department of Justice and several civil liberties groups have challenged the efforts to restrict voting, and five counties in Florida must get pre-clearance from the DOJ or a federal court before making changes to voting procedures. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits several states and localities with histories of voter discrimination from altering voting procedures without federal pre-clearance.

    The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled late Thursday that curtailing early voting opportunities in Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hardee and Hendry counties would have a discriminatory impact on black voters.

    The three-judge panel concluded, in part, that the “state has failed to satisfy its burden of proving that those changes will not have a retrogressive effect on minority voters.” The panel added that restricting early-voting is “analogous to closing polling places in disproportionately African-American precincts.”  

    Ryan P. Haygood, director of the Political Participation Group at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, one of the group’s challenging Florida’s restrictions on voting said in a statement regarding the litigation that implementation of the measures “would be devastating for Black and other minority voters in the state.”