One year ago, the Supreme Court opened the floodgates for state legislatures to restrict voting access. In Shelby County v. Holder, the Court struck down the formula for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act — a vital provision that, for nearly 50 years, required federal preapproval of voting changes in jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory practices. These were mostly in the South, where the greatest battles of the voting-rights movement were played out during the 1964 Freedom Summer. Emboldened by the Shelby decision, and left with no federal oversight, state after state has implemented, passed, or proposed discriminatory bills that restrict access to the ballot.
These policies include stricter voter-identification laws, cuts to early voting, bans on same-day registration, voter-roll purges, and “show me your papers” laws requiring proof of citizenship in order to register. They have passed both in the states that were previously covered by Section 5 preclearance, as well as states that fell outside of the VRA coverage formula. Many of these regulations disparately affect communities of color, the elderly, students, and low-income citizens.
Just weeks after the Shelby ruling, for example, North Carolina gained the notorious distinction of passing the worst voter-suppression law in the country. Immediately after it was signed into law, Advancement Project — the organization for which I serve as codirector — brought a suit in federal court challenging the law on behalf of the North Carolina NAACP. In light of the avalanche of provisions designed to restrict voting, we had to fight back.
That North Carolina law not only requires stringent forms of photo identification before North Carolinians can gain access to the ballot, it also shortens the early voting period by a full week, ends out-of-precinct voting for statewide races, and terminates same-day registration and preregistration of 16 and 17 year olds. Each of these measures had formerly expanded the participation of voters of color. For example, 70 percent of African-American voters who voted in 2012 used early voting.
Advancement Project lawyers will be in federal court in North Carolina on today to ask for a ruling temporarily blocking North Carolina’s blatant attempts to limit the influence of voters of color in the upcoming elections. We’ll argue that North Carolina’s harsh voter law is intentionally and disproportionately burdensome for African-American and Latino voters, in violation of Section 2 of the VRA, as well as the 14thand 15thAmendments of the Constitution.
Because the case doesn’t go to full trial until 2015, an injunction is necessary to prevent the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of North Carolina voters in the 2014 midterm elections — which could be crucial in preventing the passage of even more devastating policies in the state. State legislators didn’t stop at seriously restricting the right to vote in North Carolina. They also gutted public education, changed tax policy to reward millionaires while hurting working families, cut unemployment benefits, and refused to expand Medicare for North Carolina’s working poor. Without a full electorate, voters in the state have little chance of overturning these policies.
While North Carolina’s law is the gold standard for legislators who want to cherry-pick their constituents, other Southern states have joined them in the voter-suppression race.
In Alabama, lawmakers are forging ahead with plans to require documentary proof of citizenship, such as a certified birth certificate, an unexpired passport, or naturalization papers, to register to vote. Texas has already implemented its voter ID law — the same law that, in 2012 under previous VRA preclearance rules, the Justice Department had struck down for being racially discriminatory. Next month, Virginia voters will be newly required to present limited forms of photo ID in order to cast a ballot. Last month, Alabama and Mississippi also implemented new photo ID laws.
All of these states were previously covered under the umbrella of protection of Section 5. Even where the bloodiest historic repression of African-American voting rights occurred, new procedures with discriminatory impact are being enacted without any federal oversight.
As new voting regulations crop up and impose staggering barriers to the ballot, there have also been successes in the fight for equal voting rights. Being granted a temporary injunction hearing in North Carolina is the first step to protect voting rights in the state. This April, after Advancement Project and cocounsel challenged Wisconsin’s prohibitive photo ID law, the measure was struck down in federal court. Earlier this year, a Pennsylvania court struck down that state’s photo ID law. A photo ID ballot initiative was diverted in Nevada, while a Missouri amendment to implement stricter voter ID requirements died in the Senate.
Throughout the South, where Section 5 used to protect voters of color, litigation is ongoing. While it is worth noting these victories, without Section 5 protection, voters of color remain vulnerable to state-level tactics to disenfranchise. And without injunctions like the one we’re seeking in North Carolina, protracted legal battles come with the risk that on-the-ground consequences can crop up as cases are being heard, leading to disenfranchisement for hundreds of thousands of voters.
In a nation that prides itself as a leading democracy, efforts to limit the vote are fundamentally antithetical to our values. Voting is the one time when all Americans have an equal opportunity to be heard, whether you’re young or old; rich or poor; black, white, Latino, Asian, or Native American. It’s a right that people fought for 50 years ago, in some cases even giving their lives. Still today, we will keep on fighting to ensure equal ballot access for all.
Penda D. Hair is codirector of Advancement Project, a Washington-based racial-justice group working at the community level to protect voting rights across the country.
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