Editor’s Note: Kristen Clarke is president and executive director of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which leads the Election Protection program and 866-OUR-VOTE hotline for voters. The views expressed in this commentary are hers.
Kristen Clarke: High court ruling on Voting Rights Act has harsh repercussions for 2016
Voting rights advocates play "Whac-a-mole" with suppressive state measures, she says
While some Americans are already posting selfies online with “I Voted” stickers from early voting, too many more may find it difficult to exercise their rights at the polls November 8. Americans should be on the lookout for violations of voters’ rights next week, now that the US Supreme Court has stripped away many of the protections of the Voting Rights Act. Local officials in a number of states have already taken steps that could well discourage or outright suppress voting across the country.
Next week will mark the first presidential election in more than 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act
In 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts authored an opinion for the Supreme Court in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder that gutted a core provision of the act. In it, Roberts noted that “things have changed dramatically” across the country and that “(b)latantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare.”
However, Roberts’ view of the voting rights landscape does not align with events over the last three years, which make clear that voting discrimination and voter suppression are alive and well. Since that ruling, we have witnessed lawmakers taking action to make voting more difficult. What’s worse, their efforts have only intensified in the weeks leading up to the 2016 general election.
Only compounding the situation is the US Department of Justice’s more recent decision to terminate core components of its federal observer program. These specially trained individuals were deployed inside polling sites to help prevent discriminatory challenges to minority voters and ensure fair treatment of voters. Their presence is needed now more than ever with extremist groups such as the Oath Keepers vowing to mobilize former law enforcement and military officials to conduct surveillance covertly at polling sites. Whether their plans are mere rhetoric remains to be seen, but when coupled with the false proclamations of “rigged” elections and other calls for citizens to lurk outside polling sites on Election Day, their ominous tone will likely have a devastating effect either way.
As executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, I have seen firsthand how voting rights advocates are trying to be everywhere at once to prevent voter suppression in states across the country.
Take Texas, for example. Hours after the Shelby ruling, Texas announced that it was implementing a restrictive photo identification requirement for voters that disenfranchised more than a half-million Texans. After hard-fought litigation, the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals issued a recent ruling finding the law discriminatory. The Lawyers’ Committee and other organizations have sought to ensure compliance by state and local officials with the new, broader ID requirements this ruling put in place.
However, as early voting commenced during the last week of October, several Texas counties have continued to post signs or give instructions to voters with outdated information.
In Georgia, voting discrimination is a problem at the state and local level. In Hancock County, Georgia election officials sought to “clean up” the voter registration rolls by purging almost 20% of voters – primarily African-American – in the county seat of Sparta. The sheriff’s office then issued summonses requiring voters to appear with proof of their continued eligibility to vote. In September, voting rights advocates sued the state of Georgia for imposing an “exact match” policy for processing of voter registration forms.
Unless every number and digit on a voter registration form exactly matched information contained within the state’s databases, the forms were not processed. As a result, more than 42,000 registration forms were rejected despite evidence that the databases were riddled with clerical errors. Analysis revealed a disproportionate impact on minorities who were more likely to have unique names that officials mistyped. Days after filing the suit, officials relented and began to process many registration forms, though the litigation continues.
In North Carolina, meanwhile, officials adopted a sweeping package of voting restrictions shortly after the Shelby ruling, eliminating same-day registration, cutting pre-registration opportunities for 16- and 17-year-olds, striking out-of-precinct voting and slashing early voting hours.
In July, the 4th Circuit struck down the law, described by critics as the “monster” voter suppression law, recognizing in particular its discriminatory effect and motive – especially based on the fact that state officials chose to cut early voting hours after looking at data revealing high turnout by black voters during early voting periods. Despite the court’s condemnation of state lawmakers, however, county officials are undermining the ruling, cutting early voting locations or early voting hours – intensifying this election cycle’s high-stakes game of “Whac-a-Mole.”
These voter suppression problems are not confined to the South. Officials in Maricopa County, Arizona, cut the number of polling places from more than 200 in prior elections to just 60 during the primary season, resulting in long lines and extensive wait times at the polls. A recent settlement will hopefully prevent the recurrence of these problems on November 8. And, in New York, officials carried out a purge of the rolls in Brooklyn that appeared to have a greater impact on Latino voters.
All of this takes us back to the Shelby decision; jurisdictions in each of these states were subject to the provision of the Voting Rights Act the Supreme Court’s ruling stripped away. Prior to Shelby, many states had to seek federal review before making these kinds of voting changes. It turns out that we still need these provisions today.
To fix these problems, Congress must make restoration of the Voting Rights Act a top priority. In the meantime, voters should also sound an alarm when they observe or experience potential voting discrimination or voter suppression. Nonpartisan voter protection programs, such as the Election Protection’s 866-OUR-VOTE hotline, can help fill the void created in the wake of the Shelby County ruling.
Despite the chief justice’s utopian vision of an America where “blatantly” suppressing voters’ rights is “rare,” the last three years make clear that voting discrimination remains alive and well this election cycle. Vigilance is required to ensure that all eligible Americans are able to exercise the most sacred right freely in our democracy on Election Day.