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“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

March 29, 2013 Posted by | Voting Rights Act | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“An Electoral Facsimile Of Jim Crow”: Virginia Republicans Move Forward With Mass Voter Disenfranchisement

This morning, I wrote on an emerging Republican plan—in swing states won by President Obama—to rig presidential elections by awarding electoral votes to the winner of the most congressional districts. Because Democratic voters tend to cluster in highly-populated urban areas, and Republican voters tend to reside in more sparsely populated regions, this makes land the key variable in elections—to win the majority of a state’s electoral votes, your voters will have to occupy the most geographic space.

In addition to disenfranchising voters in dense areas, this would end the principle of “one person, one vote.” If Ohio operated under this scheme, for example, Obama would have received just 22 percent of the electoral votes, despite winning 52 percent of the popular vote in the state.

For this reason, I didn’t expect Republicans to go forward with the plan—the risk of blowback is just too high. My skepticism, however, was misplaced. In Virginia, a local news station reports that just this afternoon, a state Senate subcommittee recommended a bill end Virginia’s winner-take-all system and apportion its 13 electoral votes by congressional district.

Unlike similar proposals in Pennsylvania and Michigan, this one wouldn’t award the remaining electoral votes to the winner (Virginia has 11 districts). Rather, the winner of the most congressional districts would get the final two votes. If this were in effect last year, Obama would have gotten just 4 of the state’s votes, despite winning 51 percent of its voters.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Senator Charles W. “Bill” Carrico, says the change is necessary because Virginia’s urbanized areas can outvote rural regions, weakening their political strength. In other words, Carrico thinks winning land is more important than winning people when it comes to presidential elections.

It should be said that this scheme, if carried out on a large scale, will guarantee an explosion of recounts. In any district where there is a narrow margin between the two candidates, there will be every incentive to challenge the results. Republicans present this as a way to streamline elections, but in reality, it would complicate them, and drag out the process for weeks—if not months. It would be Florida in the 2000 election, multiplied by 435.

It should also be said, again, that this constitutes a massive disenfranchisement of African American and other nonwhite voters, who tend to cluster near urban areas. When you couple this with the move on Monday to redraw the state’s electoral maps—eliminating one state senate district and packing black voters into another, diluting their strength—it’s as if Virginia Republicans are responding to Obama’s repeat victory in the state by building an electoral facsimile of Jim Crow.

 

By: Jamelle Bouie, The American Prospect, January 23, 2013

January 24, 2013 Posted by | Elections, Voting Rights | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Personhood Bill Dead in Virginia, For Now That Is

Virginia’s personhood bill is now dead for the year. The bill, already approved by the state House, passed out of a Senate committee this morning and headed to the floor. But the Republican-dominated Senate voted to send the bill back to committee and carry it overto next year. It’s the second big win for pro-choice advocates in Virginia this week, after Governor Bob McDonnell retracted his support for a bill requiring pre-abortion transvaginal sonograms yesterday.

“By vote of 24-14, HB 1 is rereferred to Senate Ed & Health and carried over for the year,” tweeted Democratic Senator Mark Herring triumphantly. “Translation = Bill is defeated.”

This morning, less than 24 hours after pro-life advocates saw a big victory over a Virginia pre-abortion sonogram bill, a Virginia Senate committee voted to move the controversial “personhood” bill forward. The bill, which would have changed the legal definition of “person” to include fertilized eggs and fetuses, passed the House last week amidst cries from Democrats. Now it’s heading for a full Senate vote.

The committee added a key measure to the bill to protect access to all legal forms of birth control. As I wrote last week, the version passed out of the House carved out a specific protection for in-vitro fertilization but not for birth control, prompting some opponents to argue the legal interpretations would likely outlaw birth control. Some reproductive activists have argued that even though in-vitro is carved out, the process, which often includes discarding other fertilized eggs, could still be in a legal limbo.

It wasn’t clear from the beginning that the measure would make it out of committee easily. The Education and Health Committee has seven pro-life Republicans and seven pro-choice Democrats. It also has Senator Harry Blevins, who has a mixed record on the subject. Blevins has angered both sides of the debate on reproductive rights. When I talked last week to Representative Bob Marshall, the author of the personhood bill, he was hardly confident. “I don’t know what Harry’s thinking on this,” he said. (Blevins has not responded to multiple calls asking for an interview.)

Only a few weeks ago Blevins chose to abstain on a measure that would have outlawed abortions after 20 weeks. The bill, which would have faced obvious legal challenges, focused on 20 weeks as the age at which a fetus feels pain and was called the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. The vote in the Senate Education and Health Committee was split, with seven Republicans voting to move the bill forward and seven Democrats voting against it. As the 15th vote, Blevins’ abstention stopped the measure.

The Virginia Society for Human Life, a pro-life advocacy group, sent out a press release arguing Blevins “effectively killed the bill in committee.” This time around, however, I’m guessing pro-life advocates are pleased with Blevins’ decision.

I asked Democratic Senator Creigh Deeds for his predictions on the personhood bill when it comes to the Senate floor. He didn’t exactly give me an answer. In the past, he told me “we’ve been able to work together across party lines … that broke down completely this year.”

(I should also mention that Virginia isn’t the only state this year with a personhood bill. In Oklahoma, two different bills have been filed. One, which looks a lot like Virginia’s, is through the Senate and awaiting approval from the state House.)

 

By: Abby Papoport, The American Prospect, February 23, 2012

February 24, 2012 Posted by | Abortion | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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