Across the country, states have implemented discriminatory laws aimed at suppressing the Black vote. Often they are packaged as measures needed to prevent voter fraud, despite the lack of evidence that any such fraud exists. These tactics have one specific goal — reducing the political power of African Americans and other minority groups. But the tide is starting to change with a series of recent victories in the courts. Increasingly courts are pulling the mask off of voter suppression tactics and calling them for what they are — discriminatory measures aimed at disenfranchising minority voters.
On Friday, a federal appeals court struck down SB2 — North Carolina’s “Monster Voter Suppression Law.” In 2013, lawmakers there adopted a law that made it more difficult to vote in just about every way imaginable. SB2 eliminated same day registration, cut early voting hours, put in a place a photo ID requirement, struck pre-registration opportunities for 16 and 17 year olds, and eliminated out of precinct voting. The court found that North Carolina targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision.” In rejecting the baseless claim that the law was needed to prevent fraud, the court found that the law “imposes cures for problems that did not exist.”
Hours later, a Wisconsin court found unconstitutional a law that limited in-person absentee voting, limited early voting hours and eliminated weekend voting. The judge found that the absentee voting restrictions "intentionally discriminates on the basis of race,” with the goal of suppressing the “vote of Milwaukee’s African Americans.” In addition, the court overturned a provision of the voter ID law that banned the use of expired student IDs at the polls, a naked attempt to repress the votes of students.
Days earlier, the most conservative federal appeals court in the country found Texas’s photo ID law discriminatory under the Voting Rights Act. When the law was adopted, it disenfranchised more than 600,000 registered voters who did not have the photo ID required by law. Under the law, only voters with a passport, driver’s license, concealed carry permit or other limited forms of id, were eligible to vote. The law had a stark impact on African Americans, Latinos, poor people, and the elderly — a group less likely to drive or fly. The law also had an impact on students as college ID did not qualify under the scheme.
Not all of the news has been good. In Virginia, the state supreme court issued a recent blow to advocates working to restore voting rights to people with criminal histories. Earlier this year, Governor McAuliffe issued an executive order restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 people in Virginia, a disproportionate number of whom are African American. But the order was quickly challenged. The court found the blanket restoration order improper. Moments after the ruling, however, the Governor, in a bold move, began signing individual orders, and has vowed to continue signing these orders, one by one, until he has restored voting rights to all 200,000 people in the state.
The vast majority of the states that have been at the forefront of the voter suppression movement are ones that were previously covered by a special provision of the Voting Rights Act. In Texas, Virginia, North Carolina and other states, officials would not have been permitted to move forward with many of these efforts without first going through a careful federal review process and demonstrating that these voting laws would not have a discriminatory effect or purpose. However, this critical provision of the Voting Rights Act was gutted by the Supreme Court in a 2013 case, Shelby County v Holder. To restore the law, Congress must act but, after more than 3 years, has failed to do so. These recent cases should serve as a wake up call to Congress.
Despite recent victories in the court, voters should not let their guard down. With less than 100 days until the November election, officials may continue to resort to a bag of tricks to suppress Black votes. Photo ID requirements, purging of the registration rolls, burdensome proof of citizenship requirements for those seeking to register, cuts on early voting hours, and moving polling sites to hostile locations are among the tactics used by officials seeking to lock out minority voters. Communities should remain vigilant and speak out against local and state efforts to make voting more difficult.
This is also a moment to push for efforts that will expand voter participation and turnout. Same day registration, expanding early voting, and pushing to restore the right to vote to citizens with a criminal history are among a few actions that can expand access. This is also a moment to push colleagues and neighbors to register to vote if they have not yet done so. The Election Protection hotline, 866-OUR-VOTE, is a resource that can be used on Election Day for those who encounter problems at the polls.
The Black Lives Matter movement is shining a bright spotlight on racial injustice and the need for reform. As the walls continue to collapse around racist voter suppression efforts, now is the time to use the full power of the vote as a tool for achieving racial justice and overdue criminal justice reform.
Kristen Clarke is the President and Executive Director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. You can follow her @KristenClarkeJD