New State Laws Threaten Voting Rights

Billy Corriher 

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about a perceived assault on voting rights. There have been media reports on a campaign by Republicans and their supporters to enact stricter voting laws. Many states have implemented shorter early voting periods, stricter rules for absentee ballots, and tougher registration requirements. Twenty states have considered new voter ID requirements, and others have strengthened existing ID rules. Why are state legislatures suddenly so concerned with voting? Republicans warn of voter fraud, but there has been no evidence of widespread fraud.

Civil rights advocates say these voter ID laws will prevent certain groups from voting, including students and minorities – two groups that heavily favored President Obama in the 2008 election. Rep. John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement, warned of “a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, minority, and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process.” The Department of Justice (DOJ) is being pressured to stop these laws under the authority granted to it by the Voting Rights Act.

The Act requires that jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination obtain “preclearance” from DOJ or the D.C. District Court before implementing any changes in voting. DOJ is slated to issue a preclearance decision tomorrow on Texas’ new voter ID law, under which a student ID, federal government employee ID, or Department of Veterans Affairs ID is not an acceptable form of identification.  A concealed-weapon permit is sufficient under the law.

Florida implemented many voting changes this year, and almost all of them have been precleared by DOJ. The state submitted the four most controversial provisions to the D.C. District Court, instead of DOJ. The Secretary of State said submitting them to the court would “ensure the changes were judged on their merits, based solely on facts and applicable law.” One new rule dramatically shortens the time for early voting, from 14 days to eight days. After the 2000 recount fiasco, early voting was a popular bipartisan reform, but Republicans have since changed their minds. One Florida newspaper criticized the legislature for eliminating early voting on the final Sunday before an election, a day when black churches often mobilize their congregants. The editorial noted that black voters comprised 32 percent of early voters on the final Sunday before the 2008 election.

These laws clearly represent a trend towards stricter requirements for voting, rules that will likely result in fewer votes being cast.  Voting rights groups warn they will disproportionately impact minorities, students, and the elderly, because these groups are less likely to have an acceptable ID. These laws demonstrate why the Act’s preclearance requirement is still relevant. Let’s hope President Obama’s reinvigorated DOJ Civil Rights Division takes a hard look at this disproportionate impact.

These laws also demonstrate the importance of state elections. State legislators exercise wide authority over voting and redistricting. If students, minorities, and the elderly do not pay attention, they may find themselves turned away from the polls on election day.

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