ABOVE CARTOON: David Fitzsimmons, The Arizona Star
By Barrington M. Salmon
Since the Supreme Court invalidated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, states that were once required to get permission from the Department of Justice to change their voting laws have been free to implement limits to voting that activists say could have a negative impact on the 2016 presidential elections.
The high court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder was closely followed by several primarily southern states, enacting a series of draconian laws that have made it increasingly more difficult for African-Americans, Latinos, students and the elderly to cast their ballots. The Republican legislators supporting these bills claim that the measures are an effort to block voter fraud. Their critics contend that the laws are a way to disenfranchise voters who are more likely to vote Democratic.
But, a national coalition of voters, advocacy groups and voting rights activists as well as in the Department of Justice, have been fighting back in the courts, statehouses and city council chambers. These advocates have now released a new report, showing the adverse impact of the Shelby case.
“This is really an important report. It is an effort to identify problems that have already arisen,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund. “We’re witnessing a virtual renaissance of voter restrictions. If they persist, they could have a very serious effect on the upcoming elections. It is an insidious and sophisticated way to shave off a few points in key races. It is a particular problem to minorities…It is a concern of national importance, one that Congress should pay particular attention to.”
The report, titled, “Warning Signs: The Potential Impact of Shelby County v. Holder on the 2016 General Election”, was compiled with the collaboration of national civil rights organizations, including the Leadership Conference Education Fund, the ACLU, the Advancement Project, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the NALEO Educational Fund.
It finds that, since Shelby, the states of North Carolina, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Virginia – once under the Section 5 preclearance mandate — have engaged in deceptive and sophisticated practices to disenfranchise voters that will have an impact on the 2016 election. These states are locations of competitive 2016 contests that will have 84 Electoral College votes, two Senate seats, and one governor’s seat up for grabs.
“As we approach the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, we’re seeing the perfect storm of a diversifying electorate and a set of states and localities responding by implementing a broad array of voter discrimination tactics,” said Scott Simpson, the report’s co-author and director of Media and Campaigns for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund. “In 2016, it is entirely possible that the presidency, control of the Senate, and a number of governorships could be determined by the voter discrimination made possible by Shelby.”
Simpson added, “Changes are happening in the dark of night. There’s no public notice, no transparency …This report looks at the intersection of states in competitive races. In those five states they’re using every tactic in the books. Those engaged in this tend to be Republicans. A lot of it is happening out of fear. Generally, it is happening with city councils, local elections, school boards. They are afraid that Blacks will gain control and continue to exert influence in these five states. For everything we’ve found, this is just a fraction of what’s actually happening.”
When announcing the Shelby ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts left it to Congress to reauthorize the VRA. To date, that has not happened.
Meanwhile, states and locations once protected by the VRA, have remained rogue, according to the report.
For example, the day after the Shelby decision, the speaker of the North Carolina House introduced H.B. 589, one of the most restrictive pieces of election legislation in the country, which came to be known by local advocates as the “monster bill.” The bill included a strict ID requirement as well as a range of additional voting restrictions, including significantly shortening the early voting period; eliminating same-day registration; prohibiting the counting of out-of-precinct provisional ballots; eliminating a pre-registration program for 16- and 17-year olds; and making challenging voters easier.
“What we are seeing in North Carolina is that more people are being disenfranchised than the margin that decided our recent governor’s election and other recent elections in our state,” said Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which has played a key role in fighting voter suppression in North Carolina. “These voter suppression measures passed in the wake of Shelby – like ending same day registration, ending out-of-precinct voting, and others – are truly having an impact on our ability to vote. We hope that these measures will not be in place in November 2016.”
The report, a collaborative effort between The Leadership Conference Education Fund, the ACLU, the Advancement Project, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the NALEO Educational Fund, warn that the restrictions are spreading.
Marion Warren, Registrar of Voters for the City of Sparta in Hancock County, Georgia, said since 2015, voter rolls were purged, removing registered voters prior to two mayoral elections that removed registered voters.
Voting officials mailed out ballots late and have “refused to make registration voter-friendly,” Warren said. “They have moved polling stations into police departments, closed six of 10 polling stations, and some people have to travel 35 miles to get to the polls. There has been an outcry from the public and I got the Department of Justice to look into that particular situation…It seems it’s harder for a minority to vote now in the state of Georgia than it was in 1965.”
In the battleground state of Arizona, tens of thousands of voters are believed to be disenfranchised after elections officials closed polling stations and scrubbed voter rolls.
Monica Cooper, and Juliana Huerena, are two Arizona voters who say they were disenfranchised during the 2016 primaries. They are plaintiffs in a voting rights lawsuit against Arizona and Maricopa County.
“On Election Day, I depended on Dial-a-Ride [a paratransit service] to get to and from the polling place, and was not able to vote because the lines were so long it took over two hours to get inside the polling place,” Cooper said. “I am very angry that I was not able to cast my ballot and that I was left out on Election Day.”
Huerena said, “I’ve been voting in Maricopa County for nearly 10 years and I’ve never seen lines like this before. The line wrapped around the building,” she said. “It was important to me to wait and cast my ballot, but I saw many people get frustrated after waiting for hours and eventually leave without voting. In the end, I waited four and a half hours to cast my ballot.”
Henderson, Simpson and their colleagues said this electoral debacle can be avoided if Congress acts and acts quickly. The point to the Voting Rights Advancement Act is to blunt voter suppression. The Act, they say, would not only restore preclearance protections to voters in states with the worst histories of discrimination, it would have a national impact, requiring preclearance for any proposed electoral change historically associated with discrimination.
“A lot of the problem is that some members of Congress are refusing to see discrimination happening,” Simpson said. “There are two bills with the House Judiciary Committee that have not moved. Republican leaders have shown no interest or inclination to move these bills. They’re burying their heads in the sand and doing everything they can to ignore what’s happening.”