Safeguarding Voting Rights: Learning From the Past and Looking to the Future

Maya Pendleton, MPP Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives 

marchers_with_signs_at_the_march_on_washington,_1963

Marchers with signs at the March on Washington, 1963. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

While the right to vote is fundamental to American democracy, it has needed the protection of the Constitution as well as legislation to be fully realized. The 15th and 19th Amendments extended voting rights to Black Americans and women, but organized violence and policies such as literacy tests and poll taxes effectively barred these citizens from accessing the ballot. The 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA), which prohibits racial discrimination in voting, was signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson called the Act the “most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice.” In recent years, however, legislation has contributed to voter suppression. The most common voting restrictions come in the form of voter ID laws, but also include cutbacks to early voting and absentee voting, felon disenfranchisement, and purging of voter rolls. These measures can curtail access to voting, especially for low-income, Black, and non-Black people of color, but advancing effective public policy can enact legislation that continues the work of expanding access to the right to vote.

Shelby County v. Holder and Voter Disenfranchisement

Prior to 2013, Section 4 of the VRA required jurisdictions with a history of race-based voter discrimination to submit proposed changes to voting laws to the Department of Justice of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia to ensure that changes would not harm historically disenfranchised communities. This provision changed in 2013 when the Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court case repealed Section 4 of the VRA. Hours after the Shelby decision, the Texas State Attorney General announced that the state would move forward with enacting a strict photo ID law. This law had previously been struck down by a federal court on the grounds that such a law would place “strict, unforgiving burdens” on voters who were low-income, Black, and non-Black people of color. Months after Shelby, North Carolina made cuts to early voting and implemented photo ID requirements.

Voter Disenfranchisement in the States

While proponents of these tighter voting regulations argue that voting requirements make voting systems more secure, opponents argue that tighter voting laws disproportionately impact historically disenfranchised communities. A 2018 report from the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights examines the impact of voting restrictions on minority voters. The study finds that strict voter ID laws create the “greatest burden for African-American and Latino-American communities.” American Indian and Alaska Native communities face specific barriers to voting, including long distances to polling places and the failure of election officials to provide voting sites on or near reservations. People living with disabilities also face specific barriers, such as access to transportation. Relocating polling places and voter roll purges also disproportionately impact Black, Latinx, and American Indian/Alaska Native voters. The report highlights how the Shelby v. Holder decision harms the progress made by the VRA.

Recent state laws have shown how restrictive voting policies impact communities. Since 2012, county election officials in Georgia have closed more than 214 voting precincts across the state; the majority of precincts have been closed without federal oversight. Most of the counties impacted by closings serve voters who are low-income and live in rural areas. In October, the Supreme Court declined to overturn North Dakota’s voter ID law. The law requires residents to show identification with a current street address to vote. Many Native Americans who live on reservations do not have a physical street address and North Dakota’s voter law will not accept P.O. box addresses. For many Native Americans, this voter ID law could pose an obstacle to casting a ballot.

Public Policy Can Protect Voting Rights

Although some states limit access to voting, other states have adopted innovative policies that increase citizens’ access to voting. Lawmakers can learn from the following practices that expand access to voting rights:

  • Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have approved automatic voter registration (AVR) policies. AVR allows individuals to register to vote during any interaction with the Department of Motor Vehicles. AVR streamlines the voter registration process and can potentially help solve some of the issues that prevent eligible voters from voting on Election Day.
  • Several states, including New York, Louisiana, Virginia, and recently Florida have also made progress in restoring voting rights to individuals who lost their voting rights due to a criminal conviction. Efforts to restore voting rights positively impact Black people who are also disproportionately incarcerated.
  • Congress should restore elements of the VRA and potentially expand protections against voting discrimination. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights also recommends that Congress create a streamlined process to review changes in voting procedures before they take effect. This recommendation is particularly important because it is difficult to address the impact of voter discrimination after an election.
  • States’ voter ID laws should be subject to review under the VRA. Voter ID laws are a common restrictive voting policy, and they should be implemented only after intense scrutiny.
  • The VRA should require that the public be notified of changes to voting policies and procedures well ahead of elections, giving citizens ample time to learn about new policies and take the steps necessary to vote. When North Dakota finalized its new voter ID law, citizens had less than a month to meet the new requirements. Lack of information about voting requirements and short notice to meet requirements can impede access to voting.

America has made progress in expanding access to the ballot, but challenges to voting still remain. A study estimated that more than one million votes were lost in the 2016 Presidential Election due to ID laws, long lines at polls, and registration problems. Policies and practice must support fair and equitable access to the polls for all voters.

 

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