Voter, Get Your Gun

Voter, Get Your Gun

An Alabama attorney general's opinion highlights the continuing need for the Voting Rights Act

As if Election Day wasn’t stressful enough,  you can now add to a running list of problems – long lines,  inappropriate challenges, and restrictive ID requirements, to name a few – the potential presence of unconcealed weapons at polling places.

At least in Alabama.

Responding to an inquiry about a 2013 Alabama statute prohibiting firearms in certain public areas, state Attorney General Luther Strange opined last week that state law permits Alabamians to carry unconcealed weapons into polling places.  The declaration opened up the possibility that a voter in yesterday’s runoff primary, while blocked from carrying campaign paraphernalia into the polls – a good thing – could nevertheless be permitted to bring a 357 Magnum.

This is the sort of potentially discriminatory behavior that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 sought to eliminate.  But when the Supreme Court decided Shelby County v. Holder last summer, it effectively demolished the protections afforded by Section 5, which required  covered jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination to obtain “preclearance” from the Justice Department or a federal appeals court for all proposed changes to elections practices. 

Laws like the one on Alabama’s books that affect practices at the polls could very well have been required for preclearance submission, and could have been prohibited from implementation.  Despite the fact that, as Chief Justice Roberts noted, “no one doubts” the existence of voting discrimination today, federal oversight of elections has since been severely curtailed by the Shelby decision.

Since Shelby, just one year ago, a parade of states has passed and implemented statutes resulting in voter suppression along racial, income, and age lines.  Ostensibly to combat fraud, Alabama this year implemented legislation requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls, notwithstanding that the occurrence of fraud is about as rare as getting struck by lightning.

Among other laws effectively suppressing the votes of historically marginalized groups are state challenger statutes permitting individuals and groups to challenge voters on Election Day — sometimes with very little proof or oversight.  As Common Cause and Demos noted in a joint report, Bullies at the Ballot Box, organizations like True the Vote – that profess to make the voting experience “like driving and seeing the police following you” – have consistently used intimidation tactics at the polls under the guise of voter fraud prevention and with the assistance of such state challenger laws.  While Alabama prohibits individuals from challenging voters at polling places, one can imagine the repercussions of permitting weapons in places where such challenges are allowed.

It’s unclear whether Alabama’s law would have been required to obtain  pre-clearance before Shelby.  The language did not directly address guns at the polls, though the statute’s failure to list such places as prohibited open-carry venues – as interpreted by the State Attorney General – certainly affects voting practices now.  It’s unclear too whether challengers who’ve used intimidation tactics previouisly would resort to brandishing a gun while hovering over voters, particularly in minority districts. In one Shelby County precinct this week, a gun-toting voter was allowed to cast his ballot, then stood outside with other members of the gun rights group, Bama Carry – all packing heat as well – until police asked them to leave.

Regardless, the federal government, states, and localities should be making it easier – not harder, and certainly not more frightening – for voters to elect our leaders.  More than 50 years ago, in the heyday of the civil rights movement, black and white Americans risked their lives in many parts of the country to secure our nation’s most basic, most cherished civil right, the right to cast a vote. 

Let’s not go back in time.  Let’s not erase government and grassroots efforts to make the playing field fairer.  Instead, let’s ensure that every eligible voter — regardless of age, race, or background —  can cast a ballot and help decide how this country is run.  Shelby County Attorney Butch Ellis gets it – he supported Sheriff Chris Curry’s decision to prohibit guns in Tuesday’s polling places, in defiance of the AG’s opinion. We can follow their lead and tell our legislators that voter discrimination and practices that permit it are unacceptable, and that we need a return to the protections afforded by the Voting Rights Act.