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By U.S. PIRG Democracy Intern Matthew Flyr
It has been barely a month since the Supreme Court issued its controversial Voting Rights Act (VRA) ruling — yet already, in states across the country, laws are being implemented and proposed that are designed to severely limit voting access, and that will ultimately harm American democracy.
We knew that the Shelby County v. Holder decision, which suffocated the “preclearance” portion of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) requiring state and local governments with a history of voting discrimination to get approval from the federal government before making any changes to their voting would present a major setback for voters’ rights. The Act helped ensure that eligible voters could cast a ballot regardless of race, age or gender, and many feared that these states, now acting without preclearance, would pass laws to prevent their newly-vulnerable voters from taking to the polls.
In the month since the decision, those fears have been confirmed. In less than a day after the Court’s ruling, Texas moved ahead with it’s voter ID law, considered the strictest in the nation. The law requires voters to present a current ID that is often expensive and difficult to obtain, effectively disenfranchising many low-income Texans. A court actually blocked this law in 2012, but once Texas was no longer required to seek pre-clearance, its Attorney General wasted no time in implementing the unfairly restrictive legislation.
North Carolina’s legislators also took advantage of the new, lax environment to pass their own anti-voter law. Their bill goes beyond just requiring costly forms of photo ID, however. It also includes numerous provisions that cut the early voting period, outlaw paid voter registration drives, eliminate same day registration, abolish preregistration focused on 16 and 17-year olds, end a program allowing provisional voting if you accidentally go to the wrong polling place, and more. The bill even includes a provision that increases the number of people who can challenge the identity of voters inside of the precinct. This bill, even more so than Texas’, is a conspicuous attempt to prevent average people from practicing one of their most basic and American rights. And, like in Texas, courts blocked North Carolina’s attempt to pass a similar law in 2012.
Alabama, Virginia, and Mississippi have all also begun moving ahead with efforts to establish voter ID laws. No doubt, these laws will prevent significant portions of eligible voters from voting on Election Day.
Supporters of these bills argue that requiring ID helps preserve the integrity of our elections, and that is certainly an important goal. However, The Brennan Center for Justice has shown that the violations these laws are ostensibly designed to prevent—like voter fraud or impersonation—are actually rare, even “nearly non-existent.” These bills don’t protect election integrity; in fact, they do the opposite—they put up bureaucratic hurdles that make voting even more chaotic and difficult.
Despite these setbacks for voters, the situation is far from hopeless. In its decision, the Supreme Court did not actually declare preclearance unconstitutional. Instead, the Justices said the formula to determine which state and local governments must comply with preclearance was unconstitutional. In other words: If Congress updates its formula to comply with the decision, preclearance could be put back into place.
Fortunately, Congress has shown signs that they are heeding the Court’s call, and are willing to act to protect their electorate. The Senate Judiciary Committee met last week to begin working on repairing the formula that would restore preclearance. Both Democrats and Republicans at the hearing acknowledged that legislation-based voter suppression still exists, and emphasized the importance of fixing the law.
To impress upon Congress the importance of fixing the law to restore preclearance, U.S. PIRG submitted testimony to the Committee’s hearing. We know this law is a vital tool for protecting voters, and we will continue to push back until the law is restored.
Those working to restore the VRA are not without allies. Attorney General Eric Holder recently proved his commitment to protect vulnerable voters by asking a Texas federal court to again restore the preclearance requirement. He is citing a different portion of the VRA in his request—one not ruled unconstitutional by the Court. If his effort succeeds, it may be a useful strategy for the Justice Department to prevent exploitative voter laws while they await Congressional action.
Like Attorney General Holder, U.S. PIRG and our partners in voter protection are not waiting for Congress to act, and we are currently working for proactive legislation that would make it easier for people to register to vote. It is essential for Congress to fix the VRA; but until they do, our efforts can help empower the voters who are being disenfranchised by these restrictive and hurtful new laws.
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