The Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965, aimed to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote under the 15th Amendment (1870) to the Constitution of the United States. The act significantly widened the franchise and is considered among the most far-reaching pieces of civil rights legislation in U.S. history.
In 2013, the Supreme Court declared that voter discrimination was no longer a problem and effectively struck down the only portion of the act designed to stop discrimination before it affects an election. The court let stand the provisions of the act that allow lawsuits after a discriminatory law takes effect, but unfortunately, the United States has learned the hard way that there is no satisfactory cure for discrimination after an election occurs.
Under the 1965 law, jurisdictions with a history of discrimination had to submit changes in voting practices to the Justice Department for review. But in 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down the trigger used to determine which jurisdictions would be subject to preclearance, effectively removing this safeguard. In 2015, U.S. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, and U.S. Representative John Conyers introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015 which would apply preclearance evenly among all 50 states. Under the new law, any state or jurisdiction that demonstrates a consistent pattern of discriminatory voting practices would be subject to preclearance. When the discrimination stops, the jurisdiction would automatically be freed from the requirement. This bill offers a modern and thoughtful response to voter discrimination that ensures the minimal possible federal interference in state elections. Unfortunately, despite the legislation having more than 100 co-sponsors, Congress still has not acted on it.
Which brings us to today, less than a week from election day, and in seven southern states alone, some 868 polling locations have been eliminated, thus ensuring that in the areas where polling places were closed, voters will have longer distances to travel and longer lines to stand in. Arizona’s most populous county, Maricopa County (coincidentally home to controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio) slashed the number of available polling places from 200 to 60, calling it a “cost-effective” move. In the March primary, this county saw voters waiting in line for 5 hours, many turning away rather than wait, and some polling places ran out of ballots. There was, in Maricopa County, approximately 1 polling place for every 21,000 voters.
More than a few times in the past year, I have stated my belief that when it comes to civil rights we are moving backward rather than forward. The fact that 868 polling places closed in a mere 7 states, all southern states, seems to validate my belief. It isn’t just in the south, either. Rhode Island cut 66% of its polling places, as did some counties in Indiana where hundreds of voters were turned away after the polls closed.
In March 2012, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed into law one of the most restrictive Voter ID laws on the books. Republicans praised the bill as a measure to prevent voter fraud, while Democrats accused them of trying to disenfranchise minority, elderly and urban voters. Three months later, Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai was caught on videotape saying, “Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania: done.”
This year in North Carolina, GOP leaders launched a meticulous and coordinated effort to deter black voters, who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. The law, created and passed entirely by white legislators, evoked the state’s ugly history of blocking African Americans from voting. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of the Appeals for the 4th Circuit recognized the legislature’s discriminatory intent and struck down the law. Republican Governor Pat McCrory tried to appeal, but the Supreme Court refused to stay the lower court’s order, thus the law will not be in effect for this year’s election. Score one for justice!
Federal courts have also struck down new voting restrictions in Texas, Wisconsin, Kansas and North Dakota. In all cases, the laws were enacted by Republican legislatures and governors. And in all cases, discriminatory impact on minority voters is at issue. What’s next … literacy tests? Poll taxes? This whole thing reminds me of trying to blow out those trick candles that keep re-lighting themselves on a birthday cake … you think you’ve blown out all the candles, then another starts burning again, then another. Just when we thought we had fairness and justice for all in voting rights, fires keep popping up, trying to deprive U.S. citizens of their Constitutional right!
Federal Judge James Peterson, who struck down a series of voting restrictions in Wisconsin this year, wrote: “The Wisconsin experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities. To put it bluntly, Wisconsin’s strict version of voter ID law is a cure worse than the disease.”.
We elect people to represent us in our counties, our states, and in Washington. We elect these public servants with the expectation that they will be fair and honest and do the best job they can to represent all the people of the United States, not just people with light skin or European ancestry! All these attempts by the GOP to keep African-Americans from voting this year indicate one thing: Republicans do not have faith that their candidates can win an honest election. To disenfranchise African-Americans, Hispanics, and other groups simply to win is an abomination! Are we, as a nation, truly willing to reverse the strides in equality, gains in the democratic process, that were made more than 50 years ago? If we are, then perhaps we deserve what we get. Think about it.