Voting: Democracy Shouldn’t Be This Hard

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In his State of the Union Obama said the Supreme Court's Shelby decision significantly “weakened” Voting Rights Act

 

Why do we make Democracy this hard?  Across the country, voters were accosted with new, suppressive voting laws that burdened eligible voters.

One of the first reports about the status of the 2014 midterms elections came out of North Carolina, where voters reported voting machine failures, and another location, near Bennett College, a historically black college, had the wrong voter roll.

But even before Election Day 2014 arrived, questions about efforts to suppress the vote, including voter registration issues, a bevy of new, restrictive laws particularly around Voter ID, and anecdotes of veterans being turned away in Texas, became a dominant part of the narrative. Election Day 2014 will likely be remembered not for promoting the sacred right to vote, but rather for who didn’t even get the chance to cast a ballot.

Well, how did we get here? Many of these issues stem from the imposition of new laws designed to suppress the vote.

Many of these changes in election administration stem from the aftermath of the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County, where the U.S. Supreme Court weakened the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.  In fact, Tuesday marked the first national Election Day in 50 years where voters went to the polls without some of the important protections. President Obama noted in his 2014 State of the Union Address that this decision has significantly “weakened” the protections of the Voting Rights Act. Before Election Day, there were already concerns that these laws may disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters.

Other examples of egregious voting issues this cycle include:

In Georgia, scores of voters experienced long lines, missing and unprocessed voter registrations forms, and a disabled voter information website. The secretary of state’s website, highly touted as a means for voters to find their polling locations, was down throughout the morning. Other voters were required to pay for parking near a popular polling location at Georgia Tech, essentially amounting to a poll tax. Many voters left polling locations due to long lines. All of this comes on the heels of a lawsuit that was filed alleging that 40,000 voter registrations from three counties were missing and unprocessed. It is still unclear how many of these registrants were allowed to vote or rejected, and how many had to cast provisional ballots, which are often thrown out.

In Texas, there were reports of eligible voters being denied the ability to vote, failing voter information websites, and precinct confusion. Shockingly, a Texas election judge turned away a 93-year-old veteran who was registered to vote but had an expired license based on the state’s new restrictive Voter ID law, which allows for the usage of a concealed handgun license but not a student ID.  In Denton and Dallas Counties, the election website was down during the day and in the Houston-area, many voters were unsure where to vote and waited in long lines.

In Alabama, according to NAACP Legal Defense Fund, voters were denied the right to vote due to a lack of “valid identification” because the state decided  only a few days before the election that public housing IDs would not be sufficient under Alabama’s new photo ID law.  Our organization, the Center for American Progress and Legal Progress sent a letter to the Secretary of State demanding he look into these egregious voting irregularities. According to Alabama’s Secretary of State, in his response, voters without a valid photo ID would be permitted to cast a provisional ballot.

New, suppressive voting laws clearly impacted voter experiences up to and on Election Day. The examples of voting issues in Georgia, Texas, and Alabama also make clear what we have known for a long time: these laws have a disproportionate impact on communities of color and young people. In fact, a federal judge in Texas, determined that Texas’ new voting law intentionally discriminated against communities of color, was a violation of the Voting Rights Act, and constituted an unconstitutional poll tax that could disenfranchise nearly 600,000 registered Texans. These same concerns extend to casting provisional ballots, which become even more relevant as these potentially suppressive laws are implemented.

In a first-of-its-kind study of 2012 data, the Center for American Progress found that counties with a higher percentage of minorities cast provisional ballots at a higher rate than in counties with lower percentage of minorities in 16 states. Thought provisional ballots were originally meant to be a failsafe, 2.7 million were cast in 2012, or one of every 41 in-person votes. Nearly one-third of those were not counted.

The report notes several concrete recommendations to address this troubling correlation related to provisional ballots, from modernizing voter registration, implementing same-day registration, expanding early voting, and providing online registration.

These recommendations, however, will not be a panacea. They would still leave in place a large swath of highly restrictive voting laws. Instead of suppressing voting, our laws should expand access to the ballot box. We all know why. “There is no right more basic in our democracy,” explains Chief Justice John Roberts, “than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.” McCutcheon v. FEC, 134 S. Ct. 1434, 1440-41 (2014).

These suppressive laws, which suppress both turnout and participation for voters are both wrong and unconstitutional. Until our federal courts wake up to this reality, democracy – for hundreds of thousands of citizens – is denied.

 

Michele L. Jawando is the Vice President for Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress.

 

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