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Blog: Where Do We Stand Today on Voting Rights?

May 30, 2014 | By Carolyn Burstein, NETWORK Communications Fellow

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a landmark piece of federal legislation signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson and later amended five times to expand its protections. Designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, it prohibits any state or local government from imposing any laws that result in discrimination against racial or language minorities.

In light of Shelby County v. Holder (2013) and voter suppression laws of the past few years, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 sounds downright quaint, despite being a highly effective piece of civil rights legislation. A reminder: the Shelby County v. Holder decision struck down the "coverage formula," which encompassed jurisdictions that engaged in the most egregious voting discrimination in 1965, reasoning that it was no longer responsive to current conditions.

For the past six years, we have been witnessing an unprecedented, centrally coordinated campaign to suppress students, minorities, immigrants, ex-felons and the elderly from voting, according to the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization that has filed and handled many of the lawsuits against offending jurisdictions.

Rolling Stone magazine reports that Republicans have long tried to drive Democratic voters away from the polls, quoting Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation and influential conservative activist, saying back in 1980, "I don't want everybody to vote. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections goes up as the voting populace goes down." Thanks to sentiments like his, a systematic campaign has been orchestrated particularly since the mid-term election of 2010, funded largely by David and Charles Koch through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), uncovered by an investigative report by the Center for American Progress (CAP). In 2011 alone, 38 states introduced legislation designed to impede voters at every step of the electoral process.

Many state legislatures have defeated these attempts, but a dozen have succeeded in approving obstacles to voting, such as voter-ID laws; restrictions on voter registration (such as placing onerous filing requirements on groups like the League of Women Voters), early voting (such as eliminating many days, especially Sundays -- when many African-Americans tend to vote -- formerly allowed), student voting (such as allowing voting only if students registered their cars in the state) and provisional ballots; barring ex-felons who have served their sentences from voting; and voter purges. Collectively, these laws are a significant burden for many eligible voters trying to exercise their most fundamental constitutional right. The five worst states for voting rights in 2011 and 2012 were Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Kansas. The picture has changed somewhat in 2013 and 2014, as we'll see below.

CAP reports that 11% of American citizens, but 25% of African-Americans, do not possess a government-issued photo ID (over 21 million citizens!) and three of the photo ID bills to have passed -- in South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee -- expressly do not allow students to use photo IDs issued by state educational institutions to vote.

According to CAP, the chief sponsor of Georgia's voter ID legislation, Representative Sue Burmeister (R-Augusta), told the Justice Department the bill would keep more African-Americans from voting, which was fine with her since "if there are fewer black voters because of this bill, it will only be because there is less opportunity for fraud."

As former President Bill Clinton said in 2012, "There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today."

Republicans maintain that they are waging a virtuous campaign to crack down on rampant voter fraud, yet there is scant proof because voter fraud is exceedingly rare. According to Rolling Stone magazine, a major probe by the Justice Department between 2002 and 2007 failed to prosecute a single person for going to the polls and impersonating an eligible voter. Out of the 300 million votes cast during that period, only 86 people were convicted for voter fraud, and most of those cases involved immigrants and former felons who were simply unaware of their ineligibility.

Fortunately, the courts are blocking GOP-passed voter suppression laws, including in crucial swing states like Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin. "It is a remarkable development that courts across the country have almost uniformly rejected every single law passed making it harder for eligible citizens to vote," says Wendy Weisser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "This is a clear rejection of attempts by politicians to manipulate the election