The People Have the Power
Few rights are closer to the heart of democracy than the right to vote. Yet there are some in power who would rather we all stay home on Election Day. Why? Because they know their views, and the views of the ultra-wealthy donors who support them, don’t represent ordinary Americans.
Big money makes it all too easy for them to ignore the rest of us. But the biggest blow against democracy may have been struck by the Supreme Court in 2013.
The Supreme Court’s infamous decision in Shelby v. Holder in 2013 gutted the most effective and powerful piece of civil rights legislation this country has ever passed, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965.
The 15th amendment, which was ratified in 1870, officially gave African American men the right to vote (not women—no women were allowed to vote until 1920, with the passage of the 19th amendment), but it took nearly 100 years for the dream of a fairer and more just democracy to become a reality. In the Jim Crow South, literacy tests, poll taxes, and the threat of violence were regularly employed to keep African Americans away from the polls.
The VRA was designed to remove all those roadblocks. And it worked. Voter turnout among blacks increased dramatically.
So why dismantle such a critical piece of legislation, one that always received significant bipartisan support? Because Chief Justice John Roberts wanted to declare “mission accomplished”: to him, and presumably to the other four justices who ruled for the majority, the progress enabled by the VRA was all the proof they needed that the VRA was no longer necessary. As if progress, not true equality, were the goal.
So was he right? Has America really triumphed over racism?
The Reality on the Ground
The Roberts Supreme Court ruled that section 4 of the VRA was unconstitutional.
Section 4 laid out how the US Justice Department should enforce section 5, which demanded that states with an established history of discrimination (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia in their entirety; along with parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, and South Dakota) submit any changes in their election laws to the federal government for review. It was this provision and process that stopped many would be voter-suppression efforts in their tracks.
Thanks to Shelby v. Holder, this preclearance requirement has been thrown out. And despite Roberts’s sunny view of race relations, states had a host of discriminatory voting bills ready to go. Alabama, Arizona, North Carolina, Texas, and others passed voter-suppression legislation with the kind of determination and speed that might make you a believer in effective government, if the laws they passed didn’t strike at the heart of democracy itself.
What You Need to Know
After years of seeing one voter ID law after next come rolling off the legislative assembly line, we’ve had a welcome run of good news over the past few months. Still, plenty of restrictive legislation remains in effect. It’s a confusing situation, and conditions are different in every state.
So, with Election Day approaching, the first presidential election conducted without the protections of the VRA in more than 50 years, what do voters need to know about voting laws where they live?
The Brennan Center has been monitoring developments across the country. They report that 14 states have changed election laws since 2012:
A restrictive voter ID law was allowed to go into effect once the VRA was gutted. Go here to find out what ID you need.
Arizona put an odd new law in place in 2016: it is now a felony to collect and turn in anybody’s mail-in ballots but your own (or your family members’). This could have a big impact on the elderly and Latinos.
A 2013 law allows Indiana election officials to challenge your identification. Here’s how to make sure you have the ID you need.
Kansas, frankly, is a mess. Multiple lawsuits have been filed over strict laws meant to require proof of ID and citizenship. Things have been changing fast; check out the Kansas secretary of state’s page for the latest info.
Shelby v. Holder allowed Mississippi to enact its voter ID law without preclearance. Review the requirements so that you’ll be prepared on Election Day.
Nebraska reduced its early voting period in 2013 from a minimum of 35 days to a maximum of 30 days. The state has a voter-info FAQ if you need more details.
New Hampshire voters now need an ID to vote (and proponents weren’t shy in saying why they wanted it)—and if you don't have one, you have to be photographed at the polls and have the photo affixed to affidavit. Seems like a recipe for longer lines and increased frustration.
A judge blocked two Ohio voting laws this summer, calling them unconstitutional. Other changes made to Ohio voting laws are the subject of lawsuits. Early voting and provisional ballots have been changed. It’s confusing. Check here for the latest information from the Ohio secretary of state.
Rhode Island requires a valid photo ID, though the law is quite a bit more flexible than similar legislation in other states.
South Carolina has a new voter ID in place for this election, but it too is less restrictive than those passed in many other states. Find details here.
Tennessee’s voter ID law was made even more restrictive after 2013. Make sure you bring what you need to the polls.
Texas: also a mess. The courts blocked Texas’ awful voter ID law recently (finding it discriminatory), but what’s left in place is still more restrictive than what voters faced in 2012. Head here for more details before you head to the polls.
If you want to vote in Virginia, be prepared to show some identification. (In a positive development, student IDs from private institutions can now be used; previously, only public school IDs were acceptable.) And, after a setback in the courts, Virginia’s governor is again trying to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 Virginians who had previously been barred from voting due to felony convictions.
It’s become something of a theme: Wisconsin voting laws are a mess. A court struck down the voter ID legislation in August, but because of a successful appeal, it remains in effect, at least for the 2016 election. Confused? The state’s elections commission has a page that it hopes will help.
We clearly have a long way to go until voting is free and fair all across the country. Voting should not be treated as a privilege: it’s a right, a right that many have fought and sacrificed for. The fight continues today. Join us in demanding the restoration of the VRA and then, no matter where you live, make sure you make your voice heard on Election Day.