Fear and voting in America

A three-judge federal district court in Florida v. Holder rejected Florida’s proposal to dramatically reduce its early voting period in five counties, while approving a new voting requirement for registered voters who move between Florida counties and seek to vote in their new county of residence. Because parts of Florida are covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, each of these voting changes were required to first be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C. before they could be implemented. CivSource spoke with Dale Ho, Assistant Counsel with NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Political Participation Group, about the Florida case and new threats to voting rights in the US.

In 1965, the US passed into law the Voting Rights Act. The law was essentially designed to ensure that there were fewer impediments to the right of US citizens to vote in elections. The law was a response to a history of racial discrimination at the polls that included tactics such as poll taxes and literacy tests, which effectively limited the ability of low-income and illiterate citizens to vote. At the time the law was passed, tactics like that had a disproportionately larger effect on the voting rights of African Americans, effectively suppressing the vote in that portion of the population. State level laws allowing for poll taxes and literacy tests were also typically present in states with a history of participation in slavery and racial discrimination.

Since the law was passed, the Department of Justice has served as the enforcer of the Act by screening state voting laws for measures that suppressed the vote either racially or otherwise under authorities granted by Section 5 of the statute. Section 5 specifically calls out 16 states with a history of racial discrimination. In the period between 1965 and 2010, the burden of enforcement was relatively low, most states require that you register to vote, and then the state would mail you a voter registration card with your polling place on it. However, in 2010, several states decided to implement more stringent voter ID requirements.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, of the 11 states that took up Voter ID laws, Kansas, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Georgia and Rhode Island have all had their laws approved. Minnesota and Wisconsin’s laws are in litigation and Texas, Mississippi and South Carolina have either been blocked or are awaiting federal approval.

As CivSource reported, Texas filed a challenge to the Voting Rights Act itself saying that federal monitoring of a specific sub-set of states was unfair. The challenge was prompted by the Department of Justice’s rejection of the state’s proposed voter ID law changes after the state’s own data showed that it would be discriminatory. Pennsylvania’s law was challenged, but a judge recently upheld the new ID requirements despite state data showing that the state was unprepared to meet the forecasted demand for IDs to comply with the law and remarks shown here by state Republican Representative Mike Turzai noting that the law was designed to ensure victory for presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.

In Florida, five counties are governed by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Despite this, the state recently moved to cut the amount of time available to voters to vote early as part of a group of attempts to limit and purge voter rolls ahead of the presidential election. However, this was rejected by a three-judge federal district court there. The court did however, approve Florida’s request to implement a new rule providing that voters who move from one county to another, and then seek to change their address on Election Day, may only cast a provisional ballot. Voters who move within the same county will still be permitted to change their address on Election Day while casting a regular (non-provisional) ballot.

In its case, Florida sought to reduce the number of early voting days from 12 to 8 in those five counties. However, the Court ruled that by doing that, the state would suppress African American voter turnout – a violation of the Voting Rights Act. “Everyone is overjoyed at the ruling,” Dale Ho, Assistant Counsel with NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Political Participation Group – which participated in the lawsuit against the state’s proposal, said in an interview with CivSource. “However, the state can come back and make new proposals so its not completely over yet.”

Indeed, the state is already working this angle. According to the Miami Herald Governor Scott has asked election officials in all five counties to commit to providing the equivalent number of hours over a shorter number of days. Officials in four counties have agreed but Monroe County Supervisor of Elections Harry Sawyer, a Republican has said no. Monroe County will offer 12 days of voting, because according to Sawyer, providing the greatest opportunity for individuals to vote is paramount. Governor Scott has since indicated that he may consider removing Mr. Sawyer from his position. “He’s trying to intimidate me, no doubt about it,” Sawyer said in another account in the Tampa Bay Times.

“I think a lot of people when they think of voter ID, say to themselves, ‘I don’t see what the big deal is, everyone should have an ID.’ And that’s not an unfair thing to think, but its also a failure of empathy and imagination, because for a large portion of the population it’s extraordinarily difficult, there are issues with mobility, finances, age,” Ho says. He notes that many of these laws prohibit the use of student IDs, and that elderly people who haven’t driven for a number of years may not have the proper documentation.

Beyond voter ID, getting elections officials to collude on voting hours like Governor Scott is attempting to do in Florida and officials in Ohio seem to have been successful at – including removing opposing officials from office, is another tactic. According to Ho, “it seems like everyday there is a new threat to voting rights. We saw in Florida, the attempts to place restrictions on third party voter registration drives. There are also copycat efforts on that across the country.”

In Ohio, Doug Preisse, chairman of the county Republican Party and elections board member, seems to think these efforts are ‘fair and reasonable’, telling the Columbus Dispatch, “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter-turnout machine.” Adding urban get-out-the-vote efforts to a growing group of people across the country who now stand accused of trying to help people to vote.

Voter suppression works both ways, it affects both parties, math that seems to be clear to Mr. Sawyer in Florida, but not many of his Republican counterparts. All 11 states with voter ID laws approved or in process have Republican governors. “I think its clear that the math out there, is that its better to lose a small percentage of party votes, if it suppresses a larger number of opposing votes,” Ho said. “Its very difficult to imagine any way that this isn’t a coordinated effort given the activity nationwide.”

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund represents Black voters in several additional voting rights cases, including Texas v. Holder and South Carolina v. Holder, cases involving discriminatory photo ID measures in Texas and South Carolina, respectively; and Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, a case challenging the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. Shelby County, which earlier lost its constitutional challenge, is seeking review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Brennan Center for Justice also represented interests in the Florida case and is actively tracking and representing the interests of voters as voter ID bills move through the US.