Voting Rights – We Can Win

This Saturday marks the 51st anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. Though we have a long way to go to restore this landmark law and ensure that every voter can cast a ballot that counts, it's important to recognize the progress being made.

Yesterday a ruling in North Dakota provided relief for voters facing restrictive voter ID this November. From the Native American Rights Fund:

[A] federal district court enjoined North Dakota’s strict voter ID law and ruled that voters unable to obtain the necessary identification may vote in the upcoming election by completing a declaration or affidavit. The court agreed with the seven Native American voters that the new law disproportionately burdens Native Americans and denies qualified voters the right to vote.

Last week was huge for voting rights victories, with voters in five states receiving favorable rulings.

Kansas: A Shawnee County district judge ruled that thousands of questioned (thanks to Kris Kobach) voter registrations will count in the August 2 primary. As reported by the Kansas City Star:

A Shawnee County district judge ruled Friday that the votes of 17,500 people whose registrations had been questioned are to be tallied in Tuesday’s primary.

Judge Larry Hendricks issued a temporary order, meaning the votes will be counted Tuesday. The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit against Secretary of State Kobach on behalf of Kansas voters who were told that they could vote in federal elections but that their votes in state and local elections would not be counted.

Louisiana: A federal district court held the state accountable for its neglect of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which expands voter registration access to motor vehicle offices and other agencies. Niyati Shah provided this Project Vote analysis:

In this exhaustive opinion, the court basically held that mere lip service to the public assistance provisions of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) is not an option . . . In Louisiana, however, the state had apparently decided that our vulnerable citizens weren’t all that important, and gave all sorts of excuses for neglecting Section 7 of the NVRA. But, in a resounding victory for the right to franchise, a federal district court rejected the state’s arguments.

North Carolina: The state's monster voter suppression law that covers a number of harmful policies was struck down by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Paul Gordon provided this PFAW Foundation analysis:

A three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals today reversed a lower federal court and struck down North Carolina’s notorious voter ID law, as well as its provisions curtailing or eliminating early voting, same-day registration, out-of-precinct voting, and preregistration of 16 and 17 year-olds.

Significantly, the unanimous circuit court concluded that the law does more than "just" have a discriminatory impact, in violation of a section of the Voting Rights Act (VRA).  The court also found that the law’s purpose was to discriminate, putting it in violation of the United States Constitution. One piece of evidence: state officials moved to enact the law within days of the Shelby County case removing any preclearance requirements under Section 5 of the VRA.

Virginia: Though here it was a state court pushing back on voting rights progress, Governor Terry McAuliffe stood strong in defense of voting rights restoration for formerly incarcerated persons. After the Virginia Supreme Court struck down Governor McAuliffe’s executive orders restoring the voting rights of over 200,000 formerly incarcerated persons, McAuliffe said "he would forgo his blanket declaration — and, instead, individually sign about 206,000 restoration orders for ex-felons, including 13,000 who had registered after his April order."

Wisconsin: A federal district court struck several provisions of the state's voter suppression package. Rick Hasen provided this Election Law Blog analysis:

This is a pretty sweeping opinion, which rejects many of the state’s arguments for its restrictive voting rules as [pretextual], and really aimed at giving Republicans advantage in elections. The judge was particularly skeptical of measures which made it harder to vote in Milwaukee, with its large population of minority voters, and to a lesser extent, Madison, a liberal stronghold in the state. But this is a careful opinion which parses the evidence and does not accept all of the claims.

Two weeks ago it was Texas and, again, Wisconsin.

Texas: The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed previous rulings against voter ID. As reported by the Texas Tribune:

Texas' voter identification law violates the U.S. law prohibiting racial discrimination in elections, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed previous rulings that the 2011 voter ID law — which stipulates the types of photo identification election officials can and cannot accept at the polls — does not comply with the Voting Rights Act.

Wisconsin: A federal district court provided relief for voters facing restrictive voter ID this November. From the American Civil Liberties Union:

Wisconsin’s voter ID law has been a mistake from day one. This ruling is a strong rebuke of the state’s efforts to limit access to the ballot box. It means that a failsafe will be in place in November for voters who have had difficulty obtaining ID.

There is a lot of work left to do in the voting rights arena. Not even these victories signal the end of the road for voting rights advocates. But they are important signs of progress.

Onward.

PFAW

VRA on the Brink a Half Century after Freedom Summer

On June 21, 1964, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were murdered in Mississippi while participating in the Freedom Summer campaign to register African Americans to vote.

A year later, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.

Today, their legacy lives on in the fight to ensure that the VRA survives another half century.

The Supreme Court in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder effectively gutted Section 5 of the VRA, which requires certain covered states and subjurisdictions to submit any changes in voting and election laws to the Department of Justice (DOJ) or a federal court for approval before they can go into effect. While the Court did not strike down Section 5 itself, it said that Congress’s previous determination, through the Section 4 coverage formula, as to where Section 5 applied was unconstitutional.

It could not be clearer that the lack of VRA preclearance has left democracy diminished. And with the first presidential election since Shelby County looming large, that point is coming into even sharper focus. Yet Congress has failed to do anything but let the Voting Rights Advancement Act languish, legislation that would replace what the VRA lost and make additional, critical updates.

Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman did not give their lives 52 years ago today so that Congress could allow the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and the voting protections it achieved to continue to unravel. We owe it to them and the countless others who put everything on the line in defense of voting rights to make sure – once and for all – that all eligible citizens can register to vote and cast a ballot that counts.

Failing to defend the right to vote is simply not an option.

It wasn't then. It isn't now.

PFAW

Restore The Voices Of The Excluded

After more than two years stymied by congressional inaction on voting rights, House Democrats this week renewed their efforts to Restore The Voices Of The Excluded – to #RestoreTheVOTE.

The new legislative mobilization is designed to drive more support to the Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bill introduced this June to restore what the Voting Rights Act of 1965 lost when the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 in Shelby County v Holder, and to make additional, critical updates to the landmark law.

Representative Terri Sewell:

My hope is that by launching #RestoreTheVOTE we gain grassroots support for restoring the right of every American to vote. In order to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act we must get everyday Americans to care and demand congressional action to protect voting rights. We cannot silence ANY voices within our electorate.  We must RESTORE THE V.O.T.E. — the VOICES OF THE EXCLUDED!

Want to get involved?

Sign the PFAW petition telling Congress to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Make sure that your Representative is on H.R. 2867 and that your Senators are on S. 1659.

PFAW

House Judiciary Committee Takes Up Planned Parenthood Witch Hunt, Women And Voting Rights Suffer

Earlier today the House Judiciary Committee opened its fall session with the first public hearing in its investigation into Planned Parenthood, placing a one-sided, far-right smear campaign as a clear priority over a full and fair examination of the facts. Or as PFAW Senior Researcher Miranda Blue put it, "one piece of the larger far-right effort to not only shutter Planned Parenthood’s critical women’s health services but to end legal abortion entirely."

Take the title of the hearing – Planned Parenthood Exposed: Examining the Horrific Abortion Practices at the Nation's Largest Abortion Provider. Ranking Member John Conyers called it "one-sided." Representative Jerrold Nadler of the Constitution Subcommittee agreed that it was a "farce" for having stated the Committee's conclusion at the outset.

Then there's the witness list – Not one majority witness with direct knowledge of current Planned Parenthood practices, nor any who could speak with authority on the Center for Medical Progress. Representative Nadler pointed out that if the majority had any confidence in CMP's David Daleiden that they "would have bought him here to testify before this committee." In fact, as James Bopp twice testified, he was told by the majority that the videos were not the subject of their investigation. A further line of questioning pressed by Representative David Cicilline made clear just how little consideration the Committee has for CMP and its own practices.  

Finally the discussion itself – An overwhelming amount of energy spent rehashing decades of settled law and Supreme Court precedent at the expense of women who seek not only abortion services from Planned Parenthood, a very small portion of their work, but a wide range of reproductive and preventive healthcare.

Don't forget the discussion that they aren't having – As they take up Planned Parenthood, Congress is more than two years past due in restoring what the Voting Rights Act lost in 2013 through the Supreme Court's damaging Shelby County v. Holder decision. They should instead be holding a hearing on the Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Many of you stood up to Tell House Judiciary Chair Bob Goodlatte: Focus on Restoring the Voting Rights Act, Not Attacking Women with Planned Parenthood Witch Hunt.  

Your petition signatures were hand-delivered to the Committee prior to its hearing.

PFAW petition drop for Planned Parenthood and the Voting Rights Act

PFAW

House Judiciary Committee Investigates Planned Parenthood But Still Refuses To Hold VRA Hearing

On Wednesday the House Judiciary Committee announced the first public hearing in its investigation into Planned Parenthood.

Chairman Bob Goodlatte and Subcommittee Chair Trent Franks set the tone:

Planned Parenthood and its executives must answer for the alleged atrocities brought to light in the videos by the Center for Medical Progress. For the past two months, the House Judiciary Committee has been investigating the alleged acts of Planned Parenthood and its affiliates, and now the American people will have a chance to understand just how horrific these practices are to the unborn.

As PFAW recently explained, the Center for Medical Progress is linked to far-right activists such as Live Action founder Lila Rose, who has launched similar “sting” operations against Planned Parenthood in the past. Operation Rescue head Troy Newman, who runs a website listing personal information and photographs of abortion providers and once publicly celebrated the death of a provider, serves on CMP's Board.

PFAW Senior Researcher Miranda Blue:

It’s important to see the latest attacks for what they are: one piece of the larger far-right effort to not only shutter Planned Parenthood’s critical women’s health services but to end legal abortion entirely.

The Committee is putting its commitment to this far-right smear campaign ahead of its commitment to democracy. As they take up Planned Parenthood, Congress is more than two years past due in restoring what the Voting Rights Act lost in 2013 through the Supreme Court's damaging Shelby County v. Holder decision. They should instead be holding a hearing on the Voting Rights Advancement Act.

PFAW called for the Advancement Act's passage back in June.

Two years after the Shelby County ruling gutted the heart of the Voting Rights Act, voters in cities and states that were once protected by federal oversight are facing laws that make it harder to vote – laws that disproportionately affect people of color. This is unacceptable. Voting discrimination is still a very real, pervasive problem, even if some members of Congress choose to ignore it.

Some members – led by Chairman Goodlatte.

PFAW supporters have spoken loud and clear in favor of restoring the VRA and standing with Planned Parenthood.

PFAW

Fifth Circuit Ruling on Texas Voter ID Shows Importance of Preclearance

A unanimous three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit today ruled that Texas’s restrictive voter ID law adopted in 2011’s SB 14 violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because it has a racially discriminatory effect.  This is a great victory for voting rights.

The Texas voter ID law had previously been struck down by a district court.  Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos had concluded not only that the law violated Section 2, but that Texas had adopted it with the intent to discriminate, in violation of the Constitution.  The Fifth Circuit rejected her analysis of how to discern discriminatory intent, concluding that she relied on factors that should not have been considered, such as long-ago intentional discrimination and assertions by the law’s opponents.  The Fifth Circuit remanded the case for her to reanalyze that aspect of her decision using a narrower set of evidence.  If she reaches the same conclusion, the voter ID part of the law would be struck down completely as unconstitutional.  But even if she finds no intentional discrimination, Judge Ramos can still fashion a remedy for the Section 2 violation, although it could very well fall short of completely eliminating the voter ID requirement section of SB 14.

You might wonder why a bill passed in 2011 is at this state of litigation more than four years after it was adopted.  The answer lies in the Supreme Court’s notorious Shelby County decision from 2013 that gutted the VRA’s critically important preclearance provision, which had covered Texas.

In 2012, a three-judge district court refused to preclear the law, finding that it would have had a harmful effect on racial minorities.  That should have been the end of the story, with Texas unable to put the law into effect.  But Shelby County removed Texas from preclearance requirements, allowing it to implement the law despite its previous failure at preclearance.  That meant that its victims had to go to court to challenge the law, bearing the burdens of litigation and of proving their case, even while people across the state suffered from the law’s discriminatory effects, including during the 2014 elections.  In fact, more than half a million registered voters in Texas lack the proper ID required by the law.

Now, two separate federal courts have ruled that SB 14 violates Section 2 of the VRA, and the case still has further to go: Even if the state doesn’t appeal today’s ruling, the remand back to the district court means that more litigation is in store, and portions of the law may still end up going into effect, albeit with a less discriminatory impact.

Far more efficient and just would have been to allow the preclearance provision of the VRA to work as Congress intended.  Texas officials’ eagerness to implement this discriminatory law as soon as they were able to shows just how important the preclearance provision is in protecting the right to vote.

Tomorrow will be the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.  Today’s ruling is a reminder of the law’s importance.  It is also a great example of why Congress should pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would not only restore the vital protections of preclearance consistent with the Supreme Court’s directive that any formula should be based on modern circumstances, but also make other critical improvements to the landmark law.

PFAW

North Carolina Courts Test State Voter Restrictions

On Monday, a federal trial began in Winston-Salem, North Carolina to see if recent changes in the state’s election laws unfairly and purposefully discriminate against minority voters. The changes in question include an end to same-day registration, an end to a high school voter registration program, and a reduction in early voting days.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act by striking down a coverage formula that identified nine states – including North Carolina – with a history of voter discrimination. Before the 2013 ruling, federal approval was needed before any changes in election laws in these states could go into effect. However, in the immediate aftermath of Shelby County, Republicans in the North Carolina state legislature were able to implement the restrictions without federal approval.

The North Carolina N.A.A.C.P, League of Women Voters, a group of college students, and the Department of Justice initiated the case, arguing that the measures should be struck down, and that North Carolina should be required by the court to submit voting proposals to federal approval since the contested measures were intended to discriminate, in violation of the Constitution.

Several states remodeled their voting laws following the Shelby decision; however, North Carolina’s restrictions represent some of the broadest changes in the country.

This case is the latest development in a series of initiatives to protect the right to vote across the United States, including by restoring and strengthening the Voting Rights Act. PFAW recently participated in a rally in Roanoke, Virginia, and members of our affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s leadership networks are participating in today’s events surrounding the beginning of the trial in Winston-Salem. 

PFAW Foundation

Minister Leslie Watson Malachi’s Remarks at Roanoke Voting Rights Rally

Today, on the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, People For the American Way joins a diverse group of civil rights and voting rights advocates in Roanoke, Virginia to rally for a restored Voting Rights Act (VRA).  Minister Leslie Watson Malachi, director of African American Religious Affairs at People For the American Way, is addressing the crowd. Below are her remarks, as prepared.

Hello everyone. I am Minister Leslie Watson Malachi and I’m the director of African American Religious Affairs at People For the American Way.

It’s been two years since the Supreme Court gutted the crown jewel of the Civil Rights Movement. Two years since Justice Scalia claimed that protecting the right to vote somehow represents “racial entitlement.”

The Voting Rights Act, when it was whole, was one of the most important tools we had for confronting a very ugly entitlement: the entitlement of those who think that certain votes and certain voices should matter more than others. It helped interrupt a phenomenon that is still alive and well – the ongoing devaluation of the votes, and the lives, of Black Americans. The racist massacre at Emanuel AME church in Charleston provided a horrific reminder of that reality.

The VRA gave a sense of security and safety that translated beyond just security and safety in the voting booth. After the VRA, we had the election of first-time African Americans in mayoral and gubernatorial seats post Reconstruction. The Voting Rights Act was more than a piece of public policy. It was a statement, enshrined in law, about the value of African American lives and voices.

So far, Congress has failed to restore that statement, those protections. What kind of message does that send?

Chairman Goodlatte, we are here in your backyard to demand that you and your Republican colleagues do better. Stop ignoring racial discrimination at the polls. Stop ignoring the calls from Americans of all political stripes and restore the VRA.

In the past two years, politicians in cities and states that were once protected by the federal oversight of the original VRA have been passing laws that make it harder for people of color to vote. These politicians didn’t waste any time in turning back the clock on progress we’ve made toward making sure that all Americans can participate in our democracy.

Congress shouldn’t waste any more time in doing just the opposite: restoring the Voting Rights Act and protecting every person’s right to cast a vote that counts.

Fifty years ago, courageous men and women died fighting for these protections. They knew that the right to vote is the most precious right we have in a democracy. We can’t let their legacy come undone.

PFAW

Supreme Court Sends Alabama Racial Gerrymandering Case Back to Lower Court

The Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling yesterday disagreeing with a lower court that had upheld Alabama's racially gerrymandered state legislative redistricting. The cases are Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama and Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama.

As we discussed in our Term Preview, the Republican-controlled Alabama legislature enacted a state redistricting plan after the 2010 Census that transferred a significant portion of the black population that had previously been in majority-white districts into districts that were already majority-black, a process some have called bleaching. (This plan was adopted while Alabama was still subject to the preclearance provisions of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, before Shelby County v. Holder.) Ostensibly to comply with the requirement under Section 5 that new lines not lead to a retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise, legislators decided that the African American percentages in the redrawn majority-minority districts had to be at least whatever they had become before redistricting. So if a district that was (say) 65% African American in 2002 had become 75% African American by 2010, the new lines had to keep the district at least 75% African American.

Because of population shifts over the past decade and a decision to minimize population differences among districts, this policy meant that African Americans in majority-white districts were redistricted into majority- and supermajority-black districts.

The Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and the Alabama Democratic Conference argued that legislators had misinterpreted Section 5, that race was impermissibly the overriding criterion used by legislators in drawing lines, and that the redistricting plan violated the Fourteenth Amendment. But a special three-judge district court had upheld the redistricting, ruling that (1) minimizing population differences among districts, and not race, was the predominant factor in drawing the lines, so strict scrutiny didn't apply; and (2) even if strict scrutiny applied, the boundaries were narrowly tailored to achieve the compelling purpose of compliance with the preclearance provisions of Section 5 (which was in force then).

In an opinion written by Justice Breyer and joined by the other moderates plus Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court repudiated the lower court, sending the case back so certain districts can be reanalyzed under the proper standards to determine if they are racially discriminatory. They held that Alabama can't avoid an analysis of whether race was the predominant factor by pointing to its desire to have population balance among districts:

[I]f the legislature must place 1,000 or so additional voters in a particular district in order to achieve an equal population goal, the "predominance" question concerns which voters the legislature decides to choose, and specifically whether the legislature predominately uses race as opposed to other, "traditional" factors when doing so.

Another key part of the ruling was the discussion of Section 5, which the Court made clear does not require a covered jurisdiction to maintain a particular numerical minority percentage. Instead, it requires the jurisdiction to maintain a minority's ability to elect a preferred candidate of choice.

The state's Section 5 rationale seemed like a stretch designed to justify a redistricting process that some have called "bleaching." Yesterday's ruling will ensure that no one grasps for that particular straw again in an effort to cover up racial gerrymandering. (This assumes, of course, that Congress eventually restores Section 5's efficacy by adopting a new formula for coverage, since the Roberts Court struck down the existing formula in the infamous 5-4 Shelby County ruling.) The case is also important because the dissent by the four most right-wing Justices, which was only one vote from becoming the majority opinion, would have allowed the Alabama legislature in this case to use race in drawing districts in a way that would harm minority voters.

PFAW Foundation

New Poll Demonstrates Bipartisan Support to Restore the Voting Rights Act

For nearly half a century, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) has helped protect each American’s right to vote, a founding principle of our democracy. Last year, the 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder gutted a key provision of the VRA and imperiled those hard-won voting rights. But new polling finds that across the board, Americans want to see these protections restored.

The poll, conducted by Lake Research Partners and released this week, finds that Americans believe laws must be in place to ensure that each individual has a voice in our democratic process. More than 8 in 10 voters favor the Voting Rights Act for combatting persistent issues with voting discrimination, including 72 percent of respondents who are strongly in favor of VRA protections. Additionally, over two-thirds of voters from diverse racial, political and geographical backgrounds support restoring the Voting Rights Act and strengthening protections for the right to vote.

The overwhelming response in support of strong voting protections underscores the failure of Congress to listen to the American people. Even in the face of this broad consensus, House Republican leadership has made it clear that protecting the right to vote is not a priority for them.

PFAW