People are getting very angry about laws that make it hard to vote.
During the 2018 midterms, it was hard or nearly impossible for voters in many states to cast their ballots on Election Day. Even worse, a lot of the people who were having trouble were from groups that aren’t as common.
Terri Sewell, a Democrat from Alabama, wants to do something. She has a bill that would bring back important parts of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. This would make it harder for states to treat voters of color unfairly and make it easier for the federal government to take action against states with a history of doing so.
Sewell says straight out that strict voter ID laws are “modern ways of keeping people from voting.”
“We don’t have to count how many jelly beans are in a jar or name all 67 counties of Alabama to be able to vote anymore, but there are more efforts to make it harder to vote in the name of fraud,” Sewell told Vox in a recent interview, referring to ways black Alabamians were kept from voting during the Jim Crow era. She stands for Selma, Alabama, which was at the front of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act, which is Sewell’s bill, is meant to bring back key parts of the Voting Rights Act that were thrown out by the US Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision in 2013. Her bill was at first tucked into House Resolution 1, the Democrats’ first bill of the year, which is a broad anti-corruption bill. But now, lawmakers plan to pull it out and really push it on its own (a separate provision that would create automatic voter registration will stay in HR 1).
Sewell and Democratic leaders in the House are expecting a long, drawn-out legal fight over the voting rights bill, which could go all the way to the US Supreme Court. Through committee hearings and markup, they want to get a lot of public comments from voters who have had trouble.
Even though the Senate is controlled by Republicans, House Democrats want to get the bill ready for 2020, when they might have a better chance of getting it passed.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is likely to become speaker in January, told reporters last week, “We want to set an ironclad constitutional record when we pass it, which will be soon but not as soon as moving HR 1.”
Sewell thinks that this bill comes from a bad time in American history that she doesn’t want to see happen again.
“My mother was Selma. “Restoring the Voting Rights Act is the most important thing for the people I represent,” Sewell said. “We have to start by making sure our elections are fair.”
The effects of the Voting Rights Act
In its 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down a provision of the Voting Rights Act known as the “coverage formula,” which had previously been used to determine which cities, counties, and states had engaged in discriminatory voting practices.
To further safeguard voters from discriminatory legislation, the federal government required these jurisdictions to submit to rigorous examination before enacting any new voting regulations. Since the Supreme Court has not established a coverage formula standard, it has ordered Congress to do so.
According to an article published earlier this year in The Atlantic by Vann Newkirk, this has created a legal vacuum in which states can implement legislation targeting people of color at the ballot box.
What matters in the emergence of new voting laws is that Congress does not want to do so. Federal control of state and municipal voting regulations is effectively nonexistent. This will be the norm for a while.
Sewell’s bill would specify how a state, city, or other institution violated the Voting Rights Act and require the US Department of Justice to perform additional oversight, deploying election monitors to states or municipalities with recurring problems.
As the number of voting rights complaints has surged since 2013, just a small fraction have been initiated by the US Department of Justice, according to a report by the federal Commission on Civil Rights. Many of the rest were brought by voting rights groups, which lack federal clout.
Sewell wants the federal government to examine 13 states with a history of voter discrimination: Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Arkansas, Arizona, California, New York, and Virginia.
Sewell: “I’ve heard witness after testimony of Americans finding it harder to vote.” If one individual can’t vote, our election system’s integrity is at risk.
It’s a politicized topic, though. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was the sole Senate Republican to support Sewell’s measure when it was presented.
Sewell continued, “We can’t unring it.” Since Shelby, more than 30 states have implemented stricter voting requirements, and in several of them, elections were later found to be discriminatory.
Why is everyone talking about this now?
Before Election Day, people of color in states all over the country said they were having trouble voting for strange reasons. But in many ways, Georgia was the center of a big fight about voting rights in the 2018 election.
Just a few days before the election, claims that black voters were being kept from voting reached a tipping point. Suspicions were made worse by the fact that the Republican candidate for governor, Brian Kemp, was also the secretary of state and in charge of state elections. (In the end, Kemp beat the Democrat Stacey Abrams and won the election.)
A few weeks before the election, the Associated Press released a story about the state’s “exact match” voter ID rule. This rule said that the information on a government-issued ID card like a driver’s license or Social Security card had to match up exactly with the name and information on a voter registration application. Even something as simple as a missing hyphen or a typo could throw the whole thing off, causing the Secretary of State’s Office to hold up 53,000 voter registration applications. The AP found that most of those people who voted were black.
“Georgia was an extreme case and maybe even an outlier,” said Wendy Weiser, who runs the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program. But Weiser said that what was happening in Georgia was like what was happening in a lot of other states.
For example, North Dakota’s voter ID law required voters to show a street address, which is not required of people who live on Native American reservations. Native American voters had to scramble to find street addresses because of the law, and it was possible that an entire group of minority voters could lose their right to vote. In states like New Hampshire, Missouri, Florida, and North Carolina, there were more legal challenges to strict voter ID laws.
“Every day something new would come up, it was just how hard voting rights were being attacked,” she said. “This election cycle, there have been more and more brazen attempts to stop people from voting than at any other time in recent history.”
Why voting rights became such a partisan issue
Weiser made it clear that this is not a surprise.
The push to make voter ID laws stricter started in 2010, when Republicans took over state legislatures all over the country and began to push for voter ID plans. The Shelby v. Holder case from 2013 gave them the go-ahead to keep doing what they were doing.
“Since Shelby, we’ve seen that more than 30 states have made it harder to vote, and in a lot of those states, we’ve seen elections where it was later found that there was intentional discrimination,” said Sewell.
Sewell and Weiser both say that voter ID laws and gerrymandering are influenced by race as well as partisanship. In many high-profile cases of gerrymandering, courts have said that Republican lawmakers drew the lines between congressional districts to make it harder for minority groups to vote.
“Race and partisanship are often mixed up. Weiser said, “Race is a big part of those events and those stories.” “Voting that is based on race, worry about the growing political power of minority voters and citizens, and the fact that the country will no longer be mostly white in the future.”
Sewell thinks that Republican politicians in many states don’t try to find ways to win over minority voters. Instead, they just make it harder for them to vote.
“It is clear that Republicans and the GOP win when fewer people vote,” Sewell said. “I think what you’ve seen is that the GOP has decided that the stricter the laws are, the less voter fraud there is. But there is no proof that voting fraud is common in America.
Sewell said that she remembers when the Voting Rights Act was an easy bill for both parties to pass again. She hopes that Congress will go back to how things used to be and that both parties will agree to make it easier for all Americans to vote, not harder.
Sewell said, “I just don’t think the right to vote should be a political issue.”