The Future of Voting in America

letPeopleVote.jpegWhile work intensifies to ensure that every voter in Wisconsin is properly prepared to vote in next year’s series of elections, additional legal and legislative efforts are underway that challenge the restrictions now associated with voting.

Most people are aware of the provision that requires a citizen present a specific type of identification at the polls to be able to vote.   But general awareness of the other new rules is not as wide-spread.  Among the other challenges to the right/ability to vote, the new laws

  • Reduced the early voting period from 30 to 12 days;
  • Eliminated weekend and evening voting;
  • Eliminated straight-ticket voting for all but overseas and military voters, adding to wait times at the polls;
  • Required proof of residence when registering to vote, except for overseas or military voters;
  • Barred the state from certifying statewide voter registrars, meaning anyone who registers voters can only do so in a particular county where they’re certified;
  • Made it harder for college students to use their IDs as proof of residence when registering to vote;
  • Increased residency requirements from 10 to 28 days, except for presidential elections;
  • Required that those who move within the state in the four weeks prior to an election vote in their old location not their new one;
  • Eliminated the faxing or emailing of absentee ballots, except to overseas or military voters;
  • Barred municipal clerks from returning absentee ballots to voters so they can fix mistakes;
  • Required that an area for poll monitors be set up between three and eight feet from the table where voters sign in.

In May of this year, Hillary Clinton’s top campaign lawyer, acting independently from the campaign, filed a new legal challenge to the slew of restrictive voting laws signed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. According to MSNBC,

The complaint charges that the “right [to vote] has been under attack in Wisconsin since Republicans gained control of the governor’s office and both houses of the State Legislature in the 2010 election.”  It seeks to overturn not only the state’s controversial voter ID law, but also a host of other restrictive measures that have largely flown under the radar. All these measures, the suit alleges, have already made it harder for Wisconsinites to cast a ballot, and target “African-American, Latino, young, and/or Democratic voters in Wisconsin in particular,” in violation of the Voting Rights Act. ["Top Clinton lawyer challenges Walker’s voting restrictions", MSNBC.com, June 1, 2015]

The new lawsuit addresses the cumulative effect of all the changes to voting laws not yet challenged in court.  In fact, “the complaint highlights the reality that since Republicans gained control of Wisconsin’s legislature and governorship in 2010, they’ve run a sweeping and concerted campaign to make voting harder that rivals that of any state in the country” ("Top Clinton lawyer challenges Walker’s voting restrictions", MSNBC.com, June 1, 2015).  

On another front, Democratic members of Congress are moving to repair the gap created when SCOTUS struck down the pre-approval clauses in the Voting Rights Act.  Their legislation, ‘The Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015’, would restore the requirement for federal pre-approval for procedure changes in some states.  The Senate version of the bill is expected to be sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Chris Coons, (Del), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.). In the House, the legislation is expected to be introduced by Reps. John Lewis (Ga.), Terri Sewell (Ala.), Judy Chu (Calif.), and Linda Sanchez (Calif.) ("Democrats Unveil Bill To Restore Gutted Voting Rights Act," Washington Post, June 23, 2015).

Since the key enforcement provision of the VRA was invalidated, voting discrimination has increased as states, counties, and cities across the country have pushed through laws designed to make it harder for minorities to vote.  Congress’ inaction has only made the situation worse, and has left many citizens more vulnerable to voting discrimination than at any time since the VRA was passed.

The Voting Rights Advancement Act restores Section 5 of the VRA by requiring states with 15 voting violations over the past 25 years, or 10 violations if one was statewide, to submit future election changes for federal approval. This new formula would initially cover 13 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. These states account for half of the US population and encompass most of the places where voting discrimination is most prevalent today,

In addition, the Voting Rights Advancement Act would require federal approval for specific election changes that often target minority voters today, on a nationwide basis, particularly in places that are racially, ethnically, or linguistically diverse. These include:

  • Changes to voter qualifications that make it more difficult to vote, such as new voter-ID laws and proof-of-citizenship requirements for voter registration.
  • Changes to the method of election in areas where there’s a significant racial- or language-minority population, defined as 20 percent of the electorate. This would target places like Pasadena, Texas, which after the Shelby decision eliminated two majority-Hispanic City council districts.
  • Changes to boundaries of an election district that reduce the size of the minority electorate in areas where there’s a significant racial- or language-minority population. This happened in Shelby County, Alabama, which most recently challenged the VRA, when the city of Calera reduced the black voting-age population in the city’s lone majority-black district from 71 percent to 30 percent in 2008, leading to the defeat of Calera’s only black councilman before the DOJ stepped in.
  • Changes to boundaries of an election district when the minority vote has grown by 10,000 people or by 20 percent in the past decade. This would also apply to a place like Shelby County, where the Hispanic population increased by 297 percent from 2000 to 2010.
  • Changes that reduce, consolidate, or relocate polling locations where there’s a significant racial- or language-minority population. This would apply to places like Morgan County, Georgia, which is 70 percent white and 28 percent black and closed a third of its polling places during the last election.
  • Any reduction in bilingual election materials, such as eliminating a voter guide in Spanish. This is a big issue in diverse states like Texas and California.
    ["Congressional Democrats Introduce Ambitious New Bill to Restore the Voting Rights Act," The Nation, June 24, 2015]

The 2016 election will be the first in 50 years where voters will not have the full protections of the VRA, which adds urgency to the congressional effort.  As might be expected, the legislation faces an uphill road in Congress. There are no Republicans, either in the House or the Senate, that have stepped up to co-sponsor the bill.  Up until now, the VRA has always had strong bipartisan support:  the 2006 reauthorization of the law was approved 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate and signed by George W. Bush. Per Senator Leahy, “A decision has been made within the Republican Party that we’re not going to do anything” ("Congressional Democrats Introduce Ambitious New Bill to Restore the Voting Rights Act," The Nation, June 24, 2015).

"Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), one of the co-sponsors of the newer, stronger bill, told ThinkProgress that whether or not the bill has a chance of passing, it’s important to try.  'There are politicians here in Washington and around the country who are trying to erect barriers to the right to vote and we have to have an aggressive response,' he said. 'Initially, two years ago, you had some Republicans who were with us on this, at least saying the right thing. But since then, a lot of that has broken down, but we have to continue to fight to move forward'" ("Democrats Unveil Bill To Restore Gutted Voting Rights Act," ThinkProgress.org, June 24, 2015).

As a lawsuit challenging the North Carolina’s voter ID law heads to trial, Reverend Dr. William Barber told reporters on a conference call that "because that law was passed right after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, the case will 'shine a glaring light' on how badly those protections are needed.  'Our lawsuit challenging this monster voter suppression law will test the strength of the Voting Rights Act today, and what happens in that courtroom will determine what happens in the nation, it will set the course of jurisprudence for many, many years to come,” he said. “We aim expose just how bad the Shelby decision was, and to show the world we will not surrender the most fundamental right of our democracy: the right to vote'" ("Democrats Unveil Bill To Restore Gutted Voting Rights Act," ThinkProgress.org, June 24, 2015).

Hillary Clinton, who has made voting rights a major issue in her presidential campaign, supports the new effort to restore the VRA, says press secretary Brian Fallon: “Hillary Clinton strongly supports efforts to restore the Voting Rights Act following the Supreme Court’s decision two years ago. Protecting Americans’ access to the franchise should be a top, bipartisan priority”  ("Congressional Democrats Introduce Ambitious New Bill to Restore the Voting Rights Act," The Nation, June 24, 2015).

Senator Bernie Sanders told The Nation, “The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision gutting the Voting Rights Act was a shameful step backward. The critical civil rights law which protected voters in places with a history of discrimination is as necessary today as it was in the era of Jim Crow laws. We should do everything possible to guarantee the right to vote, not make it harder for people to cast ballots. That’s why I strongly support the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015”("Congressional Democrats Introduce Ambitious New Bill to Restore the Voting Rights Act," The Nation, June 24, 2015).

See the proposed legislation.


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