“Virginia Is The New Florida”: New Voter Suppression Efforts Prove The Voting Rights Act Is Still Needed
In 2011 and 2012, 180 new voting restrictions were introduced in forty-one states. Ultimately, twenty-five laws and two executive actions were passed in nineteen states following the 2010 election to make it harder to vote. In many cases, these laws backfired on their Republican sponsors. The courts blocked ten of them, and young and minority voters—the prime target of the restrictions—formed a larger share of the electorate in 2012 than in 2008.
Despite the GOP’s avowal to reach out to new constituencies following the 2012 election, Republican state legislators have continued to support new voting restrictions in 2013. According to a report by Project Vote, fifty-five new voting restrictions have been introduced in thirty states so far this year. “The 2013 legislative season has once again brought an onslaught of bills to restrict access to the ballot, including proposals to undercut important election laws that have recently opened the electorate to more voters,” writes Erin Ferns Lee. These measures include “strict photo ID policies…voter registration restrictions; voter purges; [felon] disenfranchisement; and policies to cut back or revoke voting laws that have made voting more convenient.”
Here’s the breakdown of where such laws have been introduced.
• Mandating a government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot: Arkansas, Connecticut, Iowa, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Washington, Wyoming
• Restricting voter registration drives: Illinois, Indiana, Montana, New Mexico, Virginia
• Banning election-day voter registration: California, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska
• Requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote: Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia
• Purging the voter rolls: Colorado, Indiana, New Mexico, Texas, Virginia
• Reducing early voting: Arizona, Indiana, South Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin
• Disenfranchising ex-felons: Virginia.
(On the plus side, thirty states have also introduced measures to make voting easier by adopting online voter registration, election-day registration, expanded early voting and the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons.)
Most of these measures are still pending before state legislatures, but Virginia, which has gubernatorial and legislative elections this year, is leading the way in enacting new voting restrictions. On January 21, 2013, as Virginia State Senator Henry Marsh, a longtime civil rights activist, attended President Obama’s second inauguration on Martin Luther King Day, the deadlocked Virginia Senate took advantage of Marsh’s absence to pass a new redistricting map that reduced Democratic seats by diluting black voting strength in at least eight districts. The measure was ultimately defeated in the Virginia House, but the move set the tone on voting rights for the legislative session.
On Tuesday morning, as the nation followed the debate over Proposition 8 at the Supreme Court, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell signed a strict voter ID bill. In the last election, Virginians could vote by showing a number of different IDs, including a utility bill, a Social Security card or, this being the South, a concealed handgun permit. The new law restricts the forms of acceptable ID to a driver’s license, a passport, a state-issued photo ID card, a student ID with a photo on it or an employee photo ID. The Commonwealth Institute, a progressive research group, estimates that 869,000 registered voters in Virginia may lack these forms of photo ID, and says the new law will cost the state anywhere from $7 to $21 million to implement.
McDonnell’s spokesman called the photo ID law “a reasonable effort to protect the sanctity of our democratic process.” Yet the measure will likely only exacerbate the existing problems in Virginia’s election system, according to voting rights experts. In the last election, Virginia voters waited up to seven hours to cast a ballot. “Long lines across the state were a result of insufficient resources, poor allocation of resources that did exist, and frequent breakdowns of aging voting equipment,” according to a post-election report by the Election Protection coalition.
Moreover, study after study has shown that voter ID laws disproportionately impact young and minority voters. Not only are these constituencies less likely to have photo ID, but even in states without ID laws, black and Hispanic youth were significantly more likely than whites to be asked to show ID. According to a Politico write-up of a new report by political scientists at the University of Chicago and Washington University, “17.3 percent of black youth and 8.1 percent of Latino youth said their lack of adequate ID kept them from voting, compared with just 4.7 percent of white youth.” Mamie Locke, chairman of the Virginia Black Legislative Caucus, called the ID law “a continuation of attempts by Republicans to suppress the vote of individuals who are not likely to support their right wing agenda.”
Nor is voter fraud a rampant problem in Virginia, as supporters of the voter ID law suggest. There have been only thirty-five cases of alleged election fraud since 2000 in the state, according to an exhaustive survey by News21, and only five cases led to plea deals or convictions. Ironically, the one major case of election fraud in the state last year concerned a GOP firm charged with dumping voter registration forms.
Virginia must receive approval for its election change from the federal government under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The new voting restrictions enacted in Virginia and introduced elsewhere across the country show why Section 5 is still very much needed. If anything, the statute should be expanded in light of contemporary voter suppression efforts, not eliminated.
Virginia is quickly becoming the new Florida when it comes to electoral dysfunction. Like Florida, Virginia also passed new laws this year to restrict voter registration drives and to purge the voter rolls of alleged non-citizen voters. In Florida, such measures forced groups like the League of Women Voters to halt voter registration efforts and wrongly labeled thousands of eligible voters as non-citizens. All of this is happening, coincidentally, in a crucial election year for the Commonwealth.
The continued push to restrict the right to vote reveals the extent to which conservative power remains deeply embedded in the states, thanks to the 2010 election and subsequent aggressive gerrymandering by GOP state legislatures to protect their majorities. To combat this imbalance, Howard Dean’s group Democracy For America is launching a new effort to flip state legislatures from red to blue. The group will start, fittingly, in Virginia this year, and then expand to Iowa, Michigan and Pennsylvania in 2014. DFA plans to spend $750,000 targeting five seats in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2013. Jamelle Bouie explains why this is savvy politics:
It’s hard to overstate how smart a way this is for liberal groups to invest their time and money. Virginia, in fact, is a great case study for why it’s key for Democrats to make gains on the state level. Democrats control both Senate seats in the state, and it was key to Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012. Despite this, Republicans control all three statewide offices (governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general), the House of Delegates, and have the tie breaking vote in the state senate. The result? Republicans have been able to push a strong conservative agenda in the state.
With Congress deadlocked, the states are where the action is. It’s good that people are finally taking notice, especially as state politics continue to shift further to the right in many places.
By: Ari Berman, The Nation, March 28, 2013
Alabama gave us the Voting Rights Act when it violently suppressed peaceful marches in 1965, dramatizing the need for a strong law guaranteeing every American an equal right to vote regardless of race. Now, less than 50 years later, an Alabama county is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate the central provision of that law—Section 5. The court should decline the invitation.
The Voting Rights Act is widely acknowledged as the most effective piece of civil rights legislation in American history. It was passed to make real the promise of political equality in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Section 5 ensures state and local governments with a history of voting discrimination don’t implement new laws or practices that deny Americans the equal right to vote. Unfortunately, it is still sorely needed.
Our nation has made great progress toward racial equality since 1965. But discrimination is still real and distressingly widespread in jurisdictions covered by Section 5.
Leading up to the 2012 election, states passed a wave of restrictive laws that, had they gone into effect, would have made it harder for millions of eligible Americans to vote. These laws—which ranged from voter ID requirements to registration cutbacks to curbs on early voting —would have fallen most harshly on minorities.
Section 5 was critical in turning back the tide and stopping real discrimination. It blocked a discriminatory photo ID requirement in Texas, which required a kind of ID more than 600,000 eligible voters did not have. It required Florida to restore some early voting hours used especially by minority voters. And it blocked Texas redistricting maps after a federal court found they intentionally discriminated against Latino voters.
But Section 5 did much more: It deterred states from passing discriminatory laws in the first place. In South Carolina, lawmakers rejected a highly-restrictive voter ID requirement because they knew it wouldn’t pass muster. Instead, the state passed a law that was more flexible for the 216,000 registered citizens without driver’s licenses or nondriver’s IDs. A federal court approved the less restrictive version.
The last few years have seen some of the biggest fights over voting in decades. After an election marred by discriminatory voting laws and long lines in which minorities had to wait twice as long as whites, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is needed more than ever. Now is not the time to get rid of America’s most time-honored voting rights protection.
By: Wendy Weiser, Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, U.S. News and World Report, February 27, 2013
In the wake of their 2012 election defeats, the Republican Party hasn’t been willing to change much, but GOP officials have at least been willing to acknowledge their demographic problem. The party’s core group of supporters is old, right-wing, and white, which isn’t a recipe for success in a modern, increasingly diverse nation.
Whatever their other faults, Republican leaders realize the current trends are unsustainable for them, and at least rhetorically, seem eager to bring in new supporters. With that in mind, Reince Priebus traveled to Atlanta yesterday to do some outreach.
During a stop in Atlanta to talk with black voters Thursday, Priebus said the answer is more about framing than about substance.
“I think freedom and liberty is a fresh idea,” he said after a closed-door session with about two dozen black business and civic leaders. “I think it’s always a revolutionary idea. I don’t think there’s anything we need to fix as far as our principles and our policies.” [...]
The priority, Priebus said, will be investing time in the African-American community. “I don’t think you can show up a few months before the election,” he said.
What’s wrong with this? Nothing, really. I’m not convinced repackaging a stale and ineffective Republican agenda can be sold as “fresh,” but I think it’s entirely worthwhile for the RNC chairman to reach out to African Americans, listen to concerns from the community, and make a meaningful investment that doesn’t start “a few months before the election.”
In fact, it’s worth noting that we’ve seen this before. In 2005, as part of a similar outreach effort, then-RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman gave a terrific speech at an NAACP convention, in which he conceded that the Republican Party made a conscious decision not to “reach out” to black voters, instead choosing to “benefit politically from racial polarization.” Mehlman admitted that his party was “wrong.”
Five years later, then-RNC Chairman Michael Steele conceded his party was wrong to pursue a deliberately racially-divisive “Southern Strategy” for four decades, but he hoped Republicans would start to put things right going forward.
And now Priebus wants to undo some of the damage, too. But in his case, there’s a catch.
With one hand, the current chairman of the Republican National Committee is reaching out to the African-American community. With his other hand, Priebus is also working on new voting restrictions that disenfranchise — you guessed it — the African-American community.
Even if we put aside how detrimental the Republican policy agenda would be to minority communities, there’s an important disconnect between what Priebus is asking for (the support of African-American voters) and what Priebus is doing (encouraging the most sweeping voting restrictions since Jim Crow).
I don’t imagine the RNC chairman will be eager to talk about this during his so-called “listening tour,” but I hope some of the folks he encounters ask him about the recent war on voting. Deliberately long voting lines? Unnecessary voter-ID laws? Bogus allegations of voter fraud? A scheme to rig the electoral college? Efforts to weaken the Voting Rights Act? All of these have two things in common: (1) they disproportionately and adversely affect the African-American community; and (2) they’re all supported, encouraged, and celebrated by today’s Republican Party.
Let’s make this easy for Reince Priebus: can you explain the contradiction of asking for African-American votes while simultaneously endorsing measures to make it harder for African Americans to vote.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, February 8, 2013
Sean Barry showed up at the same polling place in Mount Airy, Pennsylvania, where he cast his ballot for Barack Obama in 2008. But when he got there, the poll workers informed him that his name was nowhere to be found on the voter rolls. They also told him he wasn’t alone; other regular voters had arrived only to find their names missing. All of them had to submit provisional ballots. Allegations of an illegal voter purge were already swirling, and Barry felt uneasy. “I feel unsteady about my vote being counted,” he said. But in the end, with or without Barry’s vote, Obama won Pennsylvania easily.
Voter suppression was only going to have an electoral impact if the race got within spitting distance, and in the end, the attempted voter purges, voter ID laws, and partisan decision-making by elections administrators were not enough to swing the 2012 presidential election to Republicans. It was supposed to pick off the votes of poor and minority voters who vote disproportionately Democratic. Instead, the efforts seemed to have the opposite effect, in some places, galvanizing communities of color. But the issue is far from resolved, and were it not for court orders in many states limiting the suppressive policies, the situation could have been much scarier. Voting rights activists now need to do what they can to keep awareness high post-election. If they do, they may have a chance to reframe the entire debate around casting ballots.
There’s little doubt that the plan to make voting harder backfired in several swing states with large minority communities. Turnout among voters of color, those most likely to be impacted by suppressive tactics, was high, particularly in swing states. African Americans matched their record vote in 2008, while Latinos came out in even higher numbers than last time. In minority precincts in Virginia, Florida, and Ohio, voters waited for hours to cast their ballots. People rarely stand for six or seven hours just to vote for a candidate—this was about their rights, too.
It probably wasn’t a shock to the grassroots organizers spreading the word about the new voting changes. In August, when it appeared Pennsylvania’s voter ID law could disenfranchise a huge chunk of the minority community, I spent time with Joe Certaine, a longtime community activist who was leading the effort to get people IDs. He told me turnout would be higher with the law than without—because no one wanted to see their hard-earned franchise taken away. “The people united will never be defeated,” he said. “It’s just that simple.”
But it wasn’t just people power—Pennsylvania’s voter ID law, like those in Wisconsin, Texas, and elsewhere, was not in effect on Election Day thanks to legal battles. A voter purge in Florida, which targeted disproportionately minority voters, stopped before a court could order it not to, while courts intervened in similar purges in Texas and Colorado. Many of those ongoing court battles will resume next year, and help set the tone for the next election.
Those same people who stood in seven-hour lines to make their voices heard would be well-served to get involved in the efforts to reform the election process as a whole. Given the outcome of the presidential race, there won’t likely be any major post-election legal challenges. But make no mistake, around the country there were plenty of problems—ones with easy solutions. For instance, if there were stricter national standards surrounding how voters are registered and how voter rolls are maintained, we wouldn’t have seen the disturbing reports across Philly of regular voters showing up to discover their names weren’t listed—possible evidence of a last- minute purge. (A spokesperson from the Pennsylvania Secretary of State said the “list maintenance” was “nothing more intensive than normal.”)
Removing partisanship more generally would make an even bigger difference. In Ohio, Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted restricted early voting hours and made a series of decisions about provisional ballots that may result in some legitimate voters losing their vote. By moving election administrations to a non-partisan process—like the one in Wisconsin—rules about where, when, and how to vote would be made without regard for which party they help. It’s hard to imagine a reason other than partisanship for why long lines are particularly prevalent in minority precincts, for instance, where there seems to be a perpetual shortage of machines.
After elections, most people stop caring about provisional ballots and voting hours, the seemingly drier aspects of the democratic process. But this election may have illustrated bluntly what’s at stake. Fights over strict voter ID laws around the country helped show that in-person voter fraud is largely a myth, and exposed the partisan Republican agenda behind those laws. The first evidence of a shift in public opinion already came last night, when after polling showed the measure would win, Minnesota voters killed a proposal to create a voter ID law. Voting rights activists may be able to build on the unprecedented coverage of voting issues this election and the organizing they’ve already done to make fair elections a policy issue going forward. Just because the election is over doesn’t mean the battle for voting rights is.
By: Abby Rapoport, The American Prospect, November 7, 2012
According to political prognosticators, the presidential race is once again a toss-up, settling into a familiar pattern after weeks in which President Obama seemed to be gaining a modest lead. The pundits are wrong to suggest a new dynamic: The race has always been too close to call.
That’s always been the contour of this campaign — periodic gaffes and brilliant debate performances aside. Republican strategists have long expected a close election; they prepared for it years ago. How did they do it? With Machiavellian strokes, GOP leaders around the country passed laws designed to block the ballot for a small number of voting blocs that tend to support Democrats.
It’s no secret — and no surprise — that the strict voter ID laws in vogue in Republican circles target poorer voters, especially those who are black and brown. Black and Latino Americans tend to vote for Democratic candidates.
No matter how much the right yells “voter fraud,” its spokesmen cannot conceal an ugly and old-fashioned strategy: Suppress the vote. Keep poor people of color from casting a ballot. Deny to certain citizens a fundamental democratic right. There is virtually no in-person voter fraud at the polls, and that’s the sort of chicanery that voter identification laws ostensibly prevent.
Instead, voter ID laws are intended to help Republicans win elections. Because the GOP brain trust is excellent at executing a long-term strategy, its demographers saw the party’s weakness years ago and began to plan for it. As the nation’s ethnic minorities, especially Latinos, grow in number, the Republican Party would have to become more inclusive or face extinction.
President George W. Bush tried to make the GOP more inclusive, but he couldn’t persuade the nativists in his party to back comprehensive immigration reform. Instead, the Republican base became more exclusionary, more jingoistic, more suspicious of diversity.
That’s why voter ID laws became so important to the party’s future. In a deeply polarized country, important races are increasingly decided by very narrow margins. In 2000, the popular vote was essentially tied. In 2004, Bush won the popular vote by about 2.5 percentage points over John Kerry. In such tight contests, Republicans need not disenfranchise large numbers of voters — just a few.
The GOP insists it just wants to protect “ballot integrity,” but sometimes its lesser lights fail to stay on message. In June, Pennsylvania state House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, a Republican, proudly recited a list of accomplishments at a state party meeting. “Pro-Second Amendment? The Castle Doctrine, it’s done. First pro-life legislation — abortion facility regulations — in 22 years, done. Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.”
Since young adults voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008, college students have also been the targets of stringent voter ID laws. In New Hampshire, for example, state House Speaker Bill O’Brien, also a Republican, pushed hard for a ban on college-issued photo IDs at the polls and an end to same-day voter registration in 2011.
Allowing students to register and vote on the same day, he later told a group of tea partiers, would simply lead to “the kids coming out of the schools and basically doing what I did when I was a kid, which is voting as a liberal. That’s what kids do — they don’t have life experience, and they just vote their feelings.”
Neither Turzai nor O’Brien mentioned voter fraud.
If protecting the ballot from con artists were the real issue here, Republicans would zero in on absentee ballots, which have been at the heart of most of the biggest voting scams over the last several decades. The Commission on Federal Election Reform, headed by James Baker and Jimmy Carter, cited absentee ballots as the “largest source of potential voter fraud” in its 2005 report.
Curiously, rules for absentee ballots have been loosened in many states. That’s because of the widespread perception that those ballots of convenience are more likely to be used by Republican voters.
The Republican Party ought to be ashamed of this ugly and un-American strategy. For all its talk about the sanctity of the U.S. Constitution, it seems to have little respect for one of its basic principles: the right to vote.
By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, October 13, 2012