An entirely different landscape

An entirely different landscape

Since the Supreme Court, in Shelby Co. v. Holder, eviscerated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a statute that for decades protected against discrimination at polling places in a number of historically-discriminating jurisdictions, states across the country – some previously covered by the act, others not – have been, in quick succession, passing and implementing legislation making it harder for many, including people of color once protected by the VRA, to cast their ballots in elections.

Over the weekend I had dinner with a handful of friends, most of them Canadians.  We’re long-time college pals and, as naturally occurs when Canucks and Yanks pit against each other, we went head to head on whose nation comes out on top.  They’ve got universal health care, but (minus some hiccups) we’re well on our way.  Our craze for all things bacon rivals their poutine.   Their dominance in hockey goes head to head with our baseball brilliance.  Even playing fields?

Then the district court’s decision in NAACP v. McCrory came down.  (Americans over-check Blackberries; minus one for us.)  And I grew disappointed, yet again, with the way we – across this country – have been handling our elections practices lately.Since the Supreme Court, in Shelby Co. v. Holder, eviscerated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), states have moved quickly to pass and implement legislation making it harder for millions of people to cast ballots.

For decades, the VRA protected against such laws in states and localities –mostly in the south — with a history of discriminating against people of color. Some of the states with new, more restrictive laws were covered by the Act; others were not.

We’re living in an entirely different landscape now.

Before Shelby, North Carolina had some of the country’s most progressive election reforms: same day registration, early voting, pre-registration for 16- and 17- year-olds.  All have been known to improve voter turnout, especially among groups historically marginalized in the political process such as people of color, seniors, students, and the disabled.  But the day after the Supreme Court did away with the coverage formula that North Carolina once fell under, leaving jurisdictions previously required to submit proposed voting changes for preclearance now free to do what they will, the Tar Heel state decimated all its progressive reforms.  Adding insult to injury, it tacked on the requirement that, beginning in 2016, would-be voters bring photo ID to the polls.  Never mind that studies have repeatedly shown that the sort of voter fraud photo ID seeks to curb virtually does not exist.

With Section 5 out of the picture, the federal court in McCrory evaluated North Carolina’s recent legislation, which blew earlier reforms out of the water, against the higher discrimination standards laid out in the VRA’s Section 2 and in the 14th, 15th, and 26th (a group of intervenor students claimed the new law discriminated on the basis of age, too) constitutional amendments.  Whereas the district court in Wisconsin recently found existence of such violations when the state attempted to enact photo ID legislation, the court in North Carolina did not and, so, denied the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction.

And thus the problem of Section 5’s elimination.  With no safeguards in place, some states are throwing out long-held protections and reforms, replacing them with more restrictive measures.  The only recourse now is litigation – a time-intensive, costly measure with mixed results, as we are seeing.

As if Americans aren’t already low on hope when it comes to their country.  And, perhaps partly as a result, turning out in low numbers to the polls.

Back to my dinner pals.  In Canada, and several other countries, the government takes the responsibility of ensuring eligible citizens are properly registered to vote, which likely accounts for a 92% registration rate and helps with their 71% average voter turnout (not fantastic, but better than ours).  Registration laws across the states in the U.S., on the other hand, put the burden on the individual, setting up hurdles before the country’s most cherished right and the backbone of our democracy – the right to vote.  And laws like those in North Carolina just make it that much harder, and that much less convenient, for citizens to get on the books before heading to the polls.

We don’t need to be like Canada; we need to live up to our own American ideals.  That means re-energizing the electorate and getting every eligible voter to the polls; it means making democracy accessible to – and engaged in by – all American citizens.  Having our government act responsibly to the call and registering her own citizens is one way to ease the burdens.  And resuming a role for the Department of Justice to oversee implementation of changes to elections practices, under a more modern and flexible approach than decades earlier, is the other.  Until we get to a moment in time when individuals are not targeted on the basis of color or primary language when trying to vote – when the caging stops, when the intimidation tactics end, when polling places are no longer shut down in black districts – we need some oversight to ensure elections are fair and legal.  And in keeping with our constitutional requirements.  Tell Congress this recess that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act must come back into play; tell our Senators and Representatives that they can no longer stand by while individual rights get trounced. 

Sign here to join the millions of Americans who agree that we need a Voting Rights Amendment Act now.