Why We Need Stronger Voting Protections

Just two weeks from tomorrow, Americans will head to the polls to vote in the midterm elections. But this year, accessing the ballot may be easier said than done.

In North Carolina, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month allowed some discriminatory voting changes – eliminating same-day registration and the counting of out-of-precinct ballots, in particular – to go into effect for this year’s elections.

That decision – and others being handed down in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 4 election – are a prime example of what voting rights look like in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision last year in Shelby County v. Holder, which eviscerated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) by allowing states and localities with a history of voting discrimination to change their voting laws without prior approval by the federal government. It’s also why Congress’s first order of business when it comes back to Washington must be to restore the VRA.

On Saturday morning, the Court allowed Texas to implement a photo ID law despite a lower court ruling that the law is intentionally discriminatory, unconstitutional, and could prevent more than 600,000 Texas citizens from voting. In a span of nine days, the law was struck down by a federal district court judge, put back in place by a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, and then allowed by the Supreme Court on Saturday – but not without opposition along the way.

In striking down the law, Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos equated it to an “unconstitutional poll tax.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed. In her dissent to Saturday’s decision – joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor – she said the law likely would impose an unconstitutional poll tax that could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of eligible voters, and wrote that “racial discrimination in elections in Texas is no mere historical artifact. To the contrary, Texas has been found in violation of the Voting Rights Act in every redistricting cycle from and after 1970.”

Everything may truly be bigger in Texas, including its voting discrimination efforts.

And while North Carolina and Texas stand out as particularly flagrant cases, they’re not anomalies. Back in April, MotherJones found that more than half of the states previously covered by Section 5 of the VRA had already passed or implemented voting restrictions in the aftermath of the Shelby decision – compared to less than 9 percent of other, non-covered states.

In June, the Brennan Center for Justice also documented the post-Shelby voting landscape, noting that, as successful as Section 5 was in actually blocking restrictive laws, it also acted as a strong deterrent against harmful changes. They also underscored how difficult, costly, and time-consuming it is to challenge discriminatory laws in the wake of Shelby through Section 2 lawsuits, rather than through the pre-Shelby, preclearance process.

But why are states trying to make voting more difficult? Donna Brazile wondered this recently in a piece for CNN, saying that voting should be as accessible as possible. “We shouldn’t require forms of ID that folks don’t have, we shouldn’t restrict days or hours that allow working people a chance to both do their job and exercise their democratic right, and we damn well shouldn’t be throwing up new obstacles midstream.”

Tomorrow is significant for another reason: It marks 20 years since the United States ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), an international human rights treaty aiming to – as the name suggests – protect people from racial discrimination, whether intentional or not. That includes racial discrimination in voting, which persists around the country still today.

The CERD Committee, a group of independent experts charged with monitoring the implementation of the treaty, met earlier this year in Geneva, Switzerland, and its concluding observations released in August expressed concern over the Shelby decision. The committee said it was “concerned at the obstacles faced by individuals belonging to racial and ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples to effectively exercise their right to vote,” and recommended the United States enforce a federal voting rights law that encourages voter participation and – in the wake of Shelby – enact nationwide protections against voting laws that have a discriminatory impact.

That opinion is shared by the editorial board of The New York Times, which recently wrote that “Instead of juicing the rules to minimize opponents’ turnout, the country’s leaders should adopt an automatic, universal voter registration system and remove absurd restrictions on which polling places individuals must attend. The current, cumbersome, two-step voting process promotes confusion and deters participation.”

Whether or not you agree with the CERD Committee, The New York Times, other prominent editorial boards, federal judges, Supreme Court justices, the Government Accountability Office, and other voices in the chorus questioning how confusion over voting laws will affect voter turnout – or wondering just how many voters in two weeks will be disenfranchised by laws targeting minority voters – it’s clear that voting rights in America are at their most fragile point in nearly a half century since the VRA was first enacted. Voters need stronger protections against the types of restrictive laws being passed across the country today.

Here’s what you can do:

  • If you’re able to, use your voice on November 4 and vote to demand accountability on voting rights.
  • If you need help registering, have questions about your polling place, or want to report problems with the election system, call the Election Protection hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE.
  • Sign the petition calling on Congress to restore the VRA.
  • Join #RestoreVotingRights Day on Tuesday, October 21, by tweeting why you think it’s time for Congress to restore the right to vote.