The Struggle to Protect Voting Rights Continues in 2016

By Julia Burzynski June 24, 2016
(Project Vote)

The Voting Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 6, 1965 and was the first comprehensive act by Congress that sought to ameliorate America’s long history of voter suppression of people of color, as well as people with lower-incomes. The VRA was the product of years of activism by courageous civil rights advocates, some of whom lost their lives in order to to have their political voices heard.

This week, the ACLU and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights hosted a briefing on “The State of Voting Rights in 2016.” The briefing featured three voting rights experts, including the ACLU’s Susan Herman and Dale Ho, as well as Nancy Zirkin of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

At the briefing, the panelists stressed the importance of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Specifically, they emphasized that this coming 2016 election will be the first election in 50 years without Section 5.

Under Section 5, all states that had a demonstrated history of voter discrimination needed to seek authorization from the federal government before implementing changes to their state’s voting laws. The panelists noted that Section 5 was and is crucial to voter protection, not only because it required states with a history of voter discrimination to be monitored, but because it prevented other states from implementing similar laws. On June 25, 2013, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Shelby County v. Holder, striking Section 5 of the VRA.

The panelists emphasized that until 2013, the Voting Rights Act had always been a bipartisan issue. That is, since the 1965 passage of the VRA, both Republicans and Democrats agreed that everyone had a right to vote.

But all of that changed in 2008.

According to Dale Ho, the 2008 election was a game changer in voting history. In 2008, America saw its first black presidential candidate as well as the highest voter turnout among young people and black people in American history. Voting determines who gets elected. And whoever is elected is granted the ability to establish the rules. So, for a country where many still struggle to conceptualize the presence of racism in today’s society, maintaining the power of the vote is key. Therefore, the high rates of historically disenfranchised groups voting in the 2008 election gave people of color a better chance to elect those who represented their interests, scaring those who sought to maintain political power.

After 2008, lawmakers have continued to pass laws to suppress the vote of those who have historically been disenfranchised.

The panelists noted that because of Shelby, “millions of minority voters will be subject to new restrictions and barriers to their right to vote this November.” Since Shelby, several states have implemented voting laws that disenfranchise voters, particularly people with lower-incomes and people of color, said Nancy Zirkin. The elimination of early voting, same-day-registration, and use of public assistance IDs for voting, as well as the implementation of photo ID are all practices lawmakers implement to disenfranchise voters. In fact, as one of the panelists noted, some states imposed these laws not even a week after the 2013 decision. This suggests that certain states were eager to be rid of preclearance to quickly enact laws that suppressed voters.

As Nancy Zirkin asserted, it was through legislation that states employed “deceptive and sophisticated” efforts to disenfranchise voters. The implementation of photo ID is an example of their efforts. Although there are states which offer free photo ID, obtaining an ID is not necessarily free. As Susan Herman noted, documentation needed to obtain a free ID and transportation to the office that issues IDs costs money. And not everyone can afford these expenses to obtain “free ID” and thus, would be unable to vote.

Another “deceptive and sophisticated” effort lawmakers employed, was the elimination of early voting and same day registration. Dale Ho noted that in North Carolina, black voters use same day registration two-times as often as white voters. Thus, imposing laws that eliminate same-day-registration disproportionately affects North Carolinian black voters.

The Shelby decision is not the first time voter suppression has worsened after voting progress. The act of voter suppression runs deep in United States history.

As someone who has a passion for civil rights history, I think it is important to recognize that America’s history of voting progress is nonlinear. In my opinion, the success and failures in voting rights following the end of the Civil War provides a valuable comparison to understanding the serious impact of Shelby.

Just after the Civil War, during the reconstruction period from 1865-1877, there was an emergence of black government officials. For the first time in U.S history, people of color were able to elect those who best represented their interests. This was largely in part due to the implementation of the 1871 Federal Election Law, allowing citizens to petition for a U.S Marshall to be present at a voting site. The law served to discourage white poll workers and election judges from discriminating against black voters. However, the repeal of the Federal Election Law in 1894 negatively impacted non-white voters. And eventually, Black officials were unable to hold their seats and the voter participation of people of color decreased.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Just as the presence of U.S Marshalls at polls kept vote suppressors in line, so did Section 5 of the VRA. The VRA blocked states that have a history of voter suppression from passing discriminatory voter laws and it prevented other states from implementing similar voting laws. Without Section 5, we are much less effective in fighting back these voter suppression laws, said Mr. Ho.

America’s history of voting rights is nonlinear. There is no direct line of progress connecting from the emancipation of slavery to the VRA in 1965. And those who sacrificed their lives in order to vote are not simply activists of the 1950s and 1960s. They are part of a longer history of voting rights activists. Just as equal voting access was not guaranteed post-Civil War, it is not guaranteed post-1965, and certainly not post-Shelby. This is why we need to act now to restore Section 5 of the VRA, especially as we observe the third year without Section 5, and head full force into a presidential election without voting protections.