American voters will cast their ballots in the 2016 presidential elections on Nov. 8. However, voting rights activists, voters, and analysts fear the U.S. Supreme Court has opened the door to voter suppression that if unchecked, will deny significant numbers of citizens their right to vote.
Since the John Roberts-led Supreme Court invalidated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 2013, states once required to get permission from the U.S. Department of Justice to enact voting laws changes have been free to implement measures activists assert could have a negative impact on the 2016 presidential elections.
Within hours of the high court ruling in 2013, state legislators in a number of states, including Florida, Virginia, Georgia, and North Carolina, began introducing bills that a new report says are signature tools of voter suppression.
A new report entitled Warning Signs: The Potential Impact of Shelby County v. Holder on the 2016 General Election, profiles voter suppression in states once covered by Section 5 of the VRA and that are competitive in the November 2016 contests. These states put 84 Electoral College votes, two Senate seats, and one governorship up for grabs. The report finds that since Shelby, all five of these states – North Carolina, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Virginia – have engaged in deceptive and sophisticated practices to disenfranchise voters.
“We’re witnessing a virtual renaissance of voter restrictions. If they persist, they could have a very serious effect on the upcoming elections,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund. “It is an insidious and sophisticated way to shave off a few points in key races. It is a particular problem to minorities. It is a concern of national importance, one that Congress should pay particular attention to.”
Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, jurisdictions with a demonstrated record of racial discrimination in voting were required to submit all proposed voting changes to DOJ or the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. for “preclearance” in advance of implementation. Preclearance was a crucial element of the Voting Rights Act because it ensured that no new voting law or practice, such as closing or moving a polling place, would be implemented in a place with a history of racial discrimination in voting unless it was first determined the law did not discriminate against minority voters.
Yet the day after the Shelby decision, the Speaker of the North Carolina House introduced H.B. 589, one of the most restrictive pieces of election legislation in the country, called the “monster bill” by local advocates. The bill includes a strict ID requirement, a significant shortening the early voting period, the elimination of same-day registration, a prohibition on counting of out-of-precinct provisional ballots, the elimination of a pre-registration program for 16- and 17-year olds, and language making challenging voters easier.
Since 2013, a coalition of voters, advocacy groups, voting rights activists from the around the country, and the DOJ, have fought many of the laws and proposals in courthouses, statehouses and city council chambers nationwide. Despite their action, countless voting laws have changed without public notice or scrutiny because Shelby removed federal oversight and transparency requirements from states previously covered by Section 5.
Scott Simpson, the report’s co-author and director of Media and Campaigns for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund, said there’s reason for concern. “As we approach the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, we’re seeing the perfect storm of a diversifying electorate and a set of states and localities responding by implementing a broad array of voter discrimination tactics,” he said. “In 2016, it is entirely possible that the presidency, control of the Senate, and a number of governorships could be determined by the voter discrimination made possible by Shelby.”
When he announced the Shelby ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts left it to Congress to reauthorize the VRA. To date, that has not happened in the Republican controlled House or Senate. “A lot of the problem is that some members of Congress are refusing to see discrimination happening,” Simpson said. “There are two bills with the House Judiciary Committee that have not moved. Republican leaders have shown no interest or inclination to move these bills. They’re burying their heads in the [sand] and doing everything they can to ignore what’s happening.”