By Grace Masback
CatlinSpeak (Portland, Oregon)
Aaron Brown moves busily around the offices of the Oregon Bus Project, filing papers, sending emails, and giving orders to dutiful volunteers. He holds a cup of coffee in one hand, a handful of pens in the other, and has a phone wedged between his head and shoulder. His expression is a mixture of panic and giddy anticipation as he orders around volunteers and staff members alike. “Hey how’s the pizza order coming?” he asks a high school intern. “Oh, hello, Congresswoman,” he says into his iPhone, turning away from those who might overhear him. The Bus Project office crackles with energy, as Brown organizes his latest venture: National Voter Registration Day.
This year’s National Voter Registration Day, on Sept. 22, brought into focus concerns about access to voting. An issue that many thought had been settled in America, voter rights, became controversial again with the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in the Shelby County v. Holder case. Writing for the majority in the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts asserted, “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.” While seemingly neutral in its impact, the Supreme Court decision has undermined the protections inherent in the “Voting Rights Act” (VRA) and caused major issues in certain Southern and Midwestern states.
The VRA, passed by Congress in 1965, sought to make the voting and electoral process fair to all races, ages, and genders. It outlawed literacy tests and other measures that had often deterred African-Americans and other minorities from voting. In 1954, only 7 percent of African Americans in Mississippi could vote. However by 1969, as a result of the VRA, 59 percent of the African Americans living in Mississippi showed up to the polls to cast their ballot.
Yet, when the Shelby decision blocked key VRA provisions that had required certain states to obtain preclearance before introducing changes to its voting laws, a wave of new restrictions on access to voting were enacted, mostly in states with histories of voter suppression.
“Voting restrictions, in particular, carry with them really destructive roots in Jim Crow laws,” said an energetic Brown, speaking at The Bus Project headquarters. “Overturning key elements of the Voting Rights Act has resulted in systemic attempts to disenfranchise low income people and communities of color.”
Shelby limited the enforceability of the VRA by striking down key provisions in Section 5 of the Act. Deborah Archer, a professor at New York Law School and voting rights expert, explains the impact of the Supreme Court’s action, “Section 5 was widely viewed as the heart of the Voting Rights Act because it stopped discriminatory voting laws before they were enacted,” she said in a recent interview. She adds, “The burden was on the state or jurisdiction to prove that the law would not have a discriminatory impact. Now, the burden is on citizens to challenge discriminatory voting laws after they have already been put in place and have already kept voters from the polls.”
The Justice Department’s ability to play a positive role in protecting voting rights has been greatly diminished. According to Emory University Political Science Professor Andra Gillespie, “Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the Justice Department has fewer tools with which to oversee voting, particularly in places which had a history of disenfranchisement in the 1960’s and 1970’s.”
This begs the question, “Who is enacting these restrictions and why?” The evidence points to conservative lawmakers in Southern and key electoral battleground states, primarily in the Midwest, many of whom are receiving campaign support from conservative political action committees. Although the stated aim of these lawmakers is to “reduce voting fraud,” it appears that the primary objective is to limit the ability of members of minority groups and young people, many of whom support progressive or liberal politicians, to vote. The justification for these statutes is slim.
Professor Archer observes, “The states that are passing these restrictive voting laws say it is about protecting the integrity of our elections and preventing fraud.” But as Archer states, rampant voter fraud is a myth and incredibly rare. According to Loyola University Law Professor Justin Levitt in a Washington Post article last year, only 31 out of one billion ballots have been subject to in-person voter fraud. Archer continues, “People don’t show up at the polls pretending to be someone else. Where there were some concerns, but still far from a common problem, was the use of absentee ballots. Most of these restrictive laws don’t even address absentee ballots, instead focusing on draconian restrictions on registration and in-person voting.”
It is more likely, Archer thinks, that these laws and restrictions are instituted with discriminatory purposes, with the intention of blocking certain communities from voting. Gillespie agrees, “In this country, we have had the good fortune to have not experienced large-scale voter fraud in recent history. As such, some (and they typically are Democrats) charge that voter ID laws are an attempt by Republicans to try to prevent likely Democratic voters from participating in elections.”
Of the 11 states with the highest African-American voter turnout in 2008, seven have passed laws making it more difficult to vote. Of the 15 states that had been found to have racial bias in their voting system under the VRA, nine have passed new, more restrictive voting laws over the past five years. These laws take many forms. Ari Berman, the author of “Give Us The Ballot,” an account of the American struggle for voting rights, told NPR’s Terry Gross in a recent interview, “There’s a whole range of voting restrictions … [including] making it harder to register to vote; cutting early voting; cutting back the hours and days for early voting; purging the voting rolls; requiring government-issued ID to cast a ballot.”
Since 2011, eight states (Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia) that saw a significant increase in early voting for the 2008 and 2010 elections sharply reduced early voting days. The days and hours slashed were those most popular with minority and hourly, blue-collar workers.
Early voting, especially voting on weekends, is essential for working class voters, as they often can’t leave work to vote on Election Day. In the 2008 presidential election, seven in 10 African-Americans voted early, a number that nearly tripled between 2004 and 2008. Overall, one-third of all Americans voted early in the 2008 election, and a federal government recommendation called on all states to adopt early voting policies.
Yet, several states in the South and the Midwest did the opposite. Governments in these states worked to limit early voting opportunities. Ohio terminated all weekend early voting and cut back on early voting overall. These cuts had a disproportionate impact on African-American voters, which was exactly the intent according to Doug Preisse, Chairman of the Franklin County (Ohio) Republican party, who was quoted in the American Prospect magazine, “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban [read: African- American] voter-turnout machine.” The same article quoted Georgia State Senator, Frank Millar, criticizing election officials for putting an early voting site in a black neighborhood and vowing to eliminate the “election law loophole” that allowed for such an action. Such reductions in access to voting, “. . . are serious and dangerous as they block full and equal access to the electoral process for people of color and low-income voters,“ notes Professor Archer.
Requiring a specific “voter ID” has become a primary means for conservative lawmakers to place restrictions on voting access. According to Professor Gillespie, “One of the big changes since Shelby County v. Holder is that states that had been prevented from instituting voter identification laws because of Justice Department preclearance have been able to pass and implement these laws. For instance, North Carolina and Texas had been unable to pass or enforce voter ID laws before Shelby. After Shelby, it was easier for those states to implement or pass those laws.”
Before 2011, only two states required voter ID at the polls. Since 2011, nine states (Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin) have enacted laws requiring specific forms of ID in order to both register to vote and cast a ballot. The types of ID accepted and not accepted are often arbitrary. In Texas, concealed carry permits (for guns) are accepted as a valid form of ID, while state-issued student IDs are not. Some states are requiring that people provide proof of US citizenship (for example, a passport) before voting. Arecent study showed that 11% of Americans do not have the ID needed to comply with the new, stricter ID regulations.
Brown, incensed by such restrictions, noted that, “In Wisconsin, for instance, restrictions on which type of identification were necessary are, essentially, a poll tax.” He also decries the inefficiencies of the voting operations in many states, particularly in certain communities, “People in low income groups and communities of color in Ohio and Florida face disproportionately long lines on election day. It’s egregious to imagine that a single mom working a fast food job should have to wait six hours to cast a ballot. Voting should be safe, efficient, easy, and accessible, and should be something that doesn’t require any difficulty for the average American to participate.”
States are also limiting access to registration. Research suggests that African-American and Latinos are two times more likely to register to vote at early registration than Caucasian voters. Yet recently, Florida and several other states passed laws that make it more difficult to hold early registration drives, resulting in a significant drop in voter registration. North Carolina stopped pre-registration for 16 and 17 year olds. Other states have eliminated same day voter registration and made it harder for people who move to remain registered.
Professor Gillespie expresses clear skepticism as to the purpose and merits of the recent wave of restrictions, “I don’t see the need for restrictions to voting. In general, I think we should be making it easier for citizens to vote, not harder.” She continues by discussing some of the restrictions she would like to see overturned, “This includes allowing people to register to vote in government offices other than elections offices, making it easy for civic groups to hold registration drives, having early and Sunday voting, liberalizing voter ID requirements, and allowing ex-felons (who have paid their debts to society and are no longer under state supervision) to automatically regain their voting rights. Our goal should be to have as many eligible people as possible voting in every election: local, state and national.”
With little or no evidence of fraud in voting, two obvious explanations for the initiatives to limit voting rights are political partisanship and overt racism.
Professor Archer says, “For example, in striking down Texas’ voter ID law a federal judge held that the law had a detrimental effect on Black and Latino voters and was imposed with a discriminatory purpose.” In other words, to mitigate the risk of more conservative losses, Republican lawmakers took measures to cut out a large swath of the likely moderate or liberal electorate altogether.
Reflecting on the increase in voting restrictions in Southern and Midwestern states, Brown states, “Our democracy will cease to be a democracy if only a tiny proportion of the population is able to cast ballots.”
The changes since Shelby suggest a return to a time in American history where voting rights were elusive for many. In 1850, male adults who did not own property were granted the right to vote for the first time. In 1870, African-American males were allowed to cast ballots. In 1920, women’s suffrage became universal throughout the United States. In 1940 only 3% of eligible African-Americans were registered to vote in the South and even fewer were casting ballots. In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. marched in Selma, Alabama to ensure that African-American citizens would be given the right to register to vote. That same year, the Voting Rights Act was passed. The large turnout of minority voters in the 2008 election appears to have spurred the actions to restrict voting in more than 20 states, and the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby represents a serious setback for voting rights in America.
Unless citizens take action, the current trajectory is dismal. Professor Archer says, “I don’t believe this trend will stop until the Supreme Court makes it clear to states that these laws will not be allowed to stand. Or, they will continue until there are steps taken to restore the power of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to block these laws before they are enacted.”
Yet, Professor Archer acknowledges that there is some hope, and that through activism and political engagement there can be a change, “It is the responsibility of every citizen to protect their own right to vote and the rights to vote of those around them.” She describes the importance of organizing and participating in voter registration drives and suggests that in states with restrictive laws, “Citizens can help other voters navigate the Law’s requirements and obtain the ID necessary to vote.”
“Hold voter registration drives in your community, find issues that really matter to your community and use them as a rallying force to get voter registration to happen,” encourages Brown. “In many communities with restrictive actions to voting rights there are organizations fighting back, and I encourage people to join local chapters of Common Cause, or ACLU, or of the Bus Federation.”
Professor Archer also recommends citizen advocacy at the Congressional level, “Citizens should encourage their representatives to take action to restore Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act,” adding that, “…Citizens should report violations of the laws that protect the right to vote when they see it. This includes reporting violations of the National Voter Registration Act, which requires that states allow people to register to vote in federal elections at motor vehicle departments or public assistance and disability benefits offices.”
As National Voter Registration Day came to an end, Brown discussed the reality of the struggle for voting rights as a crowd of over 50 volunteers, activists, and elected officials gathered for an intimate after party celebration at a rustic warehouse in Portland’s Lloyd district.
“It is the chief responsibility of organizations like The Bus Project Foundation to make voting more accessible, more engaging, and more relevant to a broader swath of the American public. We choose to focus on working on voter registration with young populations, and the work that we do is all about making the process of voting something that is more accessible and easier to participate in,” Brown says excitedly. “The Bus Project was really excited to participate in National Voter Registration Day and register over 900 people to vote in one day, because of voting’s importance in making democracy more relevant and building power, so that younger folks can hold their politicians accountable to issues young people care about in overwhelming numbers, including climate change, including LGBTQ rights, including police brutality, including college debt and student debt.” Brown then makes brief remarks to the crowd that are met by applause and cheers. He continues to talk about the success of the day and thank volunteers as the band begins to play in the background.
Image Credit: Reuben Schafir