Just over a year after the Supreme Court ruled that the nation has made so much progress on voting rights that key legal protections are no longer needed, a coalition of civil rights groups released a report documenting hundreds of voter discrimination and suppression cases. The organizations also called on Congress to rewrite the gutted section of the Voting Rights Act.
“Voters will be more vulnerable this November than they have been in decades,” said Barbara Arnwine, Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in a conference call with reporters. “Contrary to the Supreme Court’s assertion, voter discrimination is still rampant, and states continue to implement voting laws and procedures that disproportionately affect minorities.”
The report, released this week on the 49th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act, counted 332 cases in the last two decades in which voters successfully sued for violations of their voting rights, or when the U.S. Department of Justice blocked a state or county’s attempt to change their voting laws in an unconstitutional way. They counted another ten instances in which aggrieved voters settled out of court.
Tellingly, the majority of the violations happened in a small handful of states — Texas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, with South Carolina close behind — that were covered by the very Voting Rights Act formula that the Supreme Court ruled outdated and unconstitutional. As a result of the Court’s Shelby County decision, the Justice Department may no longer deploy federal observers to the formerly covered states to deter and report race-based voter suppression. The civil rights advocates that the loss of this federal monitoring program will result in “a substantial increase in voter intimidation.”
Dolores Huerta, a longtime civil and labor rights activist who organized farmworkers with Cesar Chavez, told reporters the study indicates another trend she called “appalling.”
“As the Latino community grows in numbers and their influence grows in the political process, discrimination also seems to be growing,” she said. “It is sad to see how legislation and practices have continued unabated against people of Latino descent.”
Huerta and others involved in the National Commission on the Voting Rights said their research found that modern day voter suppression takes a variety of forms, and not all of them have received the kind of media and political attention garnered by controversial gerrymandering and voter ID laws.
Huerta pointed to states that disenfranchise former felons after they have served out their sentences, or charge them hefty fines to have their voting rights restored. Arnwine also mentioned dozens of documented violations involving the local government’s failure to provide ballots and information in other languages, which they are required to do by law.
Vice-Chair Leon Russell of the NAACP added: “When I attended hearings [on voting rights] in Florida and Mississippi, we saw continuing barriers to equal participation. We saw long lines created intentionally, either by not having enough polling places in certain areas, or not having enough machines at those places. Some counties in Florida even got rid of bathrooms at the polls, which makes it harder not just for people with disabilities, but for everyone.”
The report comes on the heels of another study debunking the main justification used for passing many of the controversial voting laws in question: fraud.
Harvard Professor Justin Levitt surveyed more than a billion votes cast in general, primary, special, and municipal elections across the US from 2000 through 2014, and found only 31 credible instances of voter impersonation. And many of those 31 were never confirmed and prosecuted.
His research found that the other claim made by voter ID supporters — that the laws make people feel more confident in the electoral process — doesn’t hold up either.
“People who think elections are being stolen, and people who think they’re not, each hold on to that opinion no matter what the governing ID rules in their area,” he said.
Writing in the Washington Post, he wondered about the impacts of voter ID laws that are harder to measure, but potentially devastating: “How many legitimate voters have already been turned away?”
With Republican-controlled states currently fighting the Obama Administration in court over their voting laws, and claiming they need measures to combat voter fraud, the Harvard study is only the latest to find that such fraud is nearly non-existent. And the kinds of fraud that are more common — like fake absentee ballots, vote buying, fake registration forms, voting from the wrong address, and ballot box stuffing by officials in on the scam — would not be prevented by a voter ID law.
Still, the myth persists, and as minority turnout increases nationwide, the states with the highest rates of participation in communities of color are also the states most likely to pass voter ID laws and other measures proven to suppress minority votes.
With major elections just a few months away, the members of the National Commission on the Voting Rights are calling on Congress to quickly pass a new “formula” for determining which states and counties are covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. They say it is crucial for those areas to seek pre-clearance from the Justice Department for changes they make to their voting laws that could have a discriminatory effect — anything from cutting early voting hours in working class neighborhoods to photo ID requirements. But with Congress currently on a month-long recess, and reluctance among some Republicans to pass a revised bill, the window for action is narrow.
Graphic contributed by Adam Peck.