The Supreme Court announced today that it will hear a critical voting rights case next year. Arizona has appealed a 9th Circuit decision that barred the state from requiring proof of citizenship from those registering to vote via a federally-approved registration form. Current federal law allows voters to register via federal form instead of a state-specific form. Those opting to do so must swear under penalty of perjury that they are citizens. Arizona’s law, which is currently stayed, would require voters using that form to jump over an extra hurdle to register, requiring them to show proof of their citizenship, a provision disproportionately affecting low-income and minority voters.
The AP explains:
The ruling applies only to people who seek to register using the federal mail-in form. Arizona has its own form and an online system to register when renewing a driver's license. The court ruling did not affect proof of citizenship requirements using the state forms.
Arizona officials have said most people use those methods and the state form is what county officials give people to use to register. But voting rights advocates had hoped the 9th Circuit decision would make the federal mail-in card more popular because it's more convenient than mailing in a state form with a photocopy of proof of citizenship.
The mail-in card is particularly useful for voter registration drives, said Robert Kengle of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is representing Native American and Hispanic groups in the case.
The conservative wing of the Supreme Court has been eager to challenge voting rights laws in recent years. In 2008, a 6-3 majority of the court upheld Indiana’s voter ID law, paving the way for suppressive voter ID measures throughout the country. The Court may also hear a challenge to section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires federal preclearance for voting rights changes in states and counties with a history of discrimination at the ballot box. Successful court challenges to discriminatory voting law changes this year have shown just how essential that provision still is.
While the composition of the Supreme Court is unlikely to change before these cases are heard, they underscore the importance of federal courts in this election. Not only are federal courts the final protection we have against discriminatory voter suppression laws, the makeup of these courts is on the line in the presidential election. Either Mitt Romney or President Obama could pick up to three Supreme Court Justices and dozens of federal court judges in the next term. Romney has promised to appoint Justices like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who have both signaled their hostility to voting rights. If he does, and the Court shifts farther to the right, we could see decades of progress for fair and free elections slip away.
In March, Pennsylvania’s governor signed one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the country. One study estimated that the law could impose extra burdens on 700,000 Pennsylvania voters, disproportionately affecting the poor, minorities, students and the elderly.
Andrew Cohen at The Atlantic writes today about one Pennsylvanian in her 80s who is struggling to keep her right to vote, sixty years after casting her first vote for Adlai Stevenson. Cohen quotes a letter that Robin Kane wrote to the voter ID law’s sponsor about her efforts to help her elderly mother, Jaqueline, register to vote in Pennsylvania:
For the past two weeks, my sister and I have been trying to help my mother gather the appropriate documents to get the newly required photo ID. The education campaign had inaccurate information and the rules keep shifting, making it difficult for me to understand and it would have been impossible for my elderly mother to do this without assistance.
First, VotesPA and PennDOT websites said she would need to get a non-driver's photo license. To do so, she would need her social security card; an original birth certificate with a raised seal; two proofs of residency; an application; and an oath that she had no other form of ID. My sister and mother spent two days looking for her birth certificate from 1930. They found my dead grandmother's birth certificate, plus ration cards from World War II, and lots of documents of my father's service during that war. But not her birth certificate.
I returned to the websites to learn that even without a birth certificate, she might be able to get the photo ID if the state Department of Health could confirm her birth. However, my mother was born in NY, not Pennsylvania. So, it turned out, this solution didn't apply to her. Instead, I was directed to seek a new birth certificate from the state of New York. Just when I thought we couldn't possibly get this done in time for her to vote, I learned that there is a new option for people exactly like my mom: the new, Department of State photo id for voting.
It still requires her to have her a social security card or number (which we found); proof of residency; an application; and an oath. And it still requires that my 82-year-old mother will travel by bus to a PennDOT office and hope that she has the stamina to wait in multiple lines to complete the process to get a photo ID that she needs for only this one purpose, ever. But she is determined to do so, if she is able. And she will vote against anyone who sided with you in this effort to suppress legitimate votes.
What this really means is that Jacqueline Kane is one of the lucky ones. She has a family that has the means to be able to help her in this fashion. But think of all the other elderly people out there, who won't have a health aid with them, or who don't have access to a bus, or who don't live in elder-care facilities where such opportunities exist. Those people aren't lazy, either. And yet they clearly face disenfranchisement if this law is permitted to stay in effect.
While Kane and countless others in Pennsylvania struggle to meet the voter ID requirement before election day, it’s still unclear whether the law will take effect in November. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently returned a challenge to the law to a lower court, ordering the lower court to halt the law if it’s not convinced the voter ID requirements won’t disenfranchise anybody.
The Republican Party claims to be the party of small government -- with the obvious exceptions of denying marriage equality and massive government oversight of women's medical decisions. But there is another kind of big government that the party has overwhelmingly, enthusiastically gotten behind: expensive and intrusive attempts to make it harder for Americans to vote.
A trio of federal court decisions in Florida, Ohio and Texas last week ripped the lid off the increasingly successful right-wing campaign to limit opportunities for low-income people, minorities and students to vote -- especially, and not coincidentally, in swing states. These decisions, from even-handed and moderate federal judges across the country, show just how far the Right has gone to use the power of government to disenfranchise traditionally disenfranchised groups.
In Florida, a federal judge permanently blocked a law that had made it almost impossible for good government groups to conduct voter registration drives -- which had led groups like the venerable League of Women Voters to all but shut down operations in the state. In Ohio, a federal court ordered the state to reopen early voting in the three days before November's election, which Republicans had attempted to shut down. Early voting on the weekend before the election was enormously successful in 2008 -- especially among African Americans -- and the judge found that Republicans had no legitimate reason to want it to stop.
And finally a federal court, which is required to review changes in election policy in states and counties with a history of voting discrimination, ruled that Texas' new voter ID law couldn't go forward because it "imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor, and racial minorities in Texas."
The effort that Republican governors and legislatures across the country have gone through in the past two years to make it more difficult for citizens to vote is truly remarkable. They have been willing to buck both the law and the spirit of our constitutional democracy to bar groups of people from participating in it. And they have been willing to set up extra layers of government and bureaucracy -- things they claim to despise -- in order to keep people from the polls.
There are plenty of areas of genuine disagreement in our politics, but the right to vote shouldn't be one of them. In an interview with The Atlantic last week, Rep. John Lewis, a hero of the Civil Rights movement, said "there should be public outcry" and a "sense of righteous indignation" at what is happening to our elections. He's right.
It's astounding that nearly 50 years after the Voting Rights Act banned racial discrimination at the polls, it's still needed as a shield against such egregious violations of its principles. And it's astounding that the self-proclaimed party of small government wants to use government's power to keep people from exercising their fundamental right to vote.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley took to the stage at the Republican National Convention Tuesday night, asserting her unwavering support for voter identification laws that make it harder for Americans—particularly minorities, students, and the elderly—to exercise their constitutional right to vote.