Lots of things happened in 2013. President Obama was sworn in for a second term. We got a new pope and a new royal baby. Two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon and scared a nation. The Supreme Court stripped power from the Defense of Marriage Act and the Voting Rights Act. But these are all stories we've heard before, and if you haven't, you certainly will in the millions of "Year in Review" pieces set to be posted between now and New Year's. Over the next two weeks, our writers will instead preview the year ahead on their beats, letting you know far in advance what the next big story about the Supreme Court—or the environmental movement, immigration reform, reproductive rights, you get the picture—will be.
To the Republican supporters of laws that would treat the poll booth like an exclusive nightclub that asks for photo ID and other qualifications before allowing entry, the answer to why anyone would oppose this is simple: They must not want to vote badly enough.
Just about everyone who goes through a musical theater phase at some point falls in love with Sky Masterson of Guys and Dolls. In the movie version, Marlon Brando plays the gambler who will wager “sky high” stakes and finds himself singing “Luck Be a Lady” while rolling the dice to see if he gets the girl.
Going all in may be what you’d expect in a fictional-singing crapshooter, but it’s a bit more surprising in a U.S. attorney general.
In June, five Supreme Court Justices rolled back the Voting Rights Act, widely considered as the most effective tool in preventing discrimination in our nation's history. Section 5 of the act required that certain states and localities "preclear" proposed election changes with federal officials to ensure the changes were not discriminatory. The Court ruled that the formula used to determine which jurisdictions needed to get preclearance was outdated and unconstitutional. For those of us who care about voting rights, the question now is how do we respond?
North Carolinians wait to vote in 2008 (Flickr/James Willamor)
North Carolina recently passed what can only be described as an omnibus voter suppression law, including a whole range of provisions from demanding photo IDs to cutting back early voting to restricting registration drives, every single one of which is likely to make it harder for minorities, poor people, and/or young people to register and vote. It's not just the Tar Heel state—across the South, states that have been freed by the Supreme Court from their prior obligation under the Voting Rights Act to get permission from the Justice Department before changing their voting laws are moving with all deliberate speed to make voting as difficult as possible. Since these are Republican states, these laws are going to pass (some have already), and I think it's worth addressing what is fast becoming the main argument Republicans use to defend them.
They've always said that their only intent was to ensure the "integrity" of elections and protect against voter impersonation, a virtually non-existent problem. But they recently realized that they've got a new, and seemingly compelling, piece of evidence they can muster against charges of voter suppression. Many voter ID laws were passed over the last few years (the Supreme Court upheld voter ID in 2008), and as Republicans will tell you (see for example here or here), turnout among blacks hasn't declined, and in some cases has actually gone up. Blacks even turned out at a slightly higher rate than whites overall in the 2012 election. As Rand Paul recently said, "I don't think there is objective evidence that we're precluding African-Americans from voting any longer."
It’s no surprise that Florida’s decision to once again try to scrub the voter rolls of noncitizens has prompted an outcry from voting-rights advocates and local elections administrators. While no names have yet been removed, letters went out to elections supervisors last week about the new effort. Republican Secretary of State Ken Detzner has begun creating a new list of suspect voters. Famous for its poorly run elections, the state is picking up where it left off last year, when Detzner announced that he had a list of more than 180,000 voters who shouldn’t have been on the rolls. The list—90 percent of whose voters were nonwhite—turned out (surprise!) to be based on faulty and outdated information. The previous push also happened fewer than 90 days before Florida’s statewide primaries, leaving little time to alert the voters whose registration was being questioned and allow them to bring documentation to show they were eligible to vote. Elections supervisors in many counties began raising concerns about inaccuracies in the lists they’d received. The Department of Justice ordered the state to stop the purge and soon after, the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections also recommended counties halt the process. The list later got chopped down to 1,800 names, and then to fewer than 300.
It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of the voting bill currently hurtling through the North Carolina legislature. What the Republican-dominated body calls a “Voter Protection” bill has a laundry list of provisions, almost all of which make voting harder for the general population and disproportionately hard for voters of color, young voters, or low-income people. “The types of provisions are not unheard of,” says Denise Lieberman, senior council for the voting rights advocacy group the Advancement Project. “What’s unheard of is doing all them all at once.” Lieberman calls the measure “the most broad-sweeping assault on voting rights in the country.” She’s not exaggerating.
For months before the November election, battles raged in Pennsylvania over whether the state would require voters to show one of a few forms of photo ID in order to cast a ballot. Many voting rights activists saw the bill, passed by a Republican legislature and signed by a Republican governor, as an attempt to tamp down turnout among nonwhite and poor Pennsylvanians. Estimates of just how many people lacked ID ranged tremendously, but clearly nonwhite voters would be disproportionately impacted by the new requirement. State House majority leader Mike Turzai seemed to only confirm the worst when he said publicly that the new law would “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”
Congratulations, America! Racial discrimination in voting is now a thing of the past. Or so the five conservative justices on the Supreme Court decided in their ruling issued today, overturning the preclearance formula of the Voting Rights Act, under which states with long histories of discrimination at the voting booth had to get permission from the Justice Department before changing their voting rules. Now they're free to do as they wish, and although one could still challenge blatantly discriminatory rules in court, states like Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina have been liberated from federal oversight.
The story of voting rights in recent years has been largely about conservatives and legislators in Republican states working hard to restrict them, and progressives trying to counter those moves with legal challenges and organizing drives. The most prominent fights have been over voter ID laws, which are supposed to address the "problem" of voter impersonation, something that occurs about as often as two-headed sharks. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court upheld voter ID laws in 2008. But today saw an unexpected defeat for those who would like to make voting as difficult as possible, when the Court struck down an Arizona law requiring voters to prove their citizenship.
Remember last year when we all cared about voting policies? Back then, newspapers were filled with updates on different states’ legal battles over strict voter ID—the laws that require photo identification to cast a ballot. Republicans pushed the laws, ostensibly to combat fraud, but Democrats and voting-rights advocates argued that the actual goal was to suppress likely Democratic voters, since poor and nonwhite communities disproportionately lack ID. With Republicans controlling an unprecedented number of state legislatures in the wake of the 2010 Tea Party wave, voter-ID bills began popping up across the country in 2011 and 2012. Similar battles emerged when some states tried to remove names from voter rolls too close to an election.
I noted last week that Republicans haven't backed off from their zeal for new voter-identification laws. In just the last three months, 55 new voting restrictions have been introduced in 30 states, with Republican lawmakers leading the charge. North Carolina is one of those states, and there, the GOP hasn't even tried to hide its push to keep Democratic voters from the polls.
The very first people to be protected by the Twenty-sixth Amendment, which guaranteed 18-year-olds the right to vote, will be 62 by the next presidential election. It’s time to extend the franchise again. And Takoma Park, Maryland, may just be on the frontier of that expanded democracy. The Washington, D.C., suburb is apparently considering lowering the voting age to 16. That proposal would only apply to local elections, but there’s no constitutional prohibition stopping any state from lowering the voting age for state or federal elections as well (the Constitution prohibits raising the age, but not lowering it). A handful of similar efforts have been floated in recent years, although the only successes have been allowing 17-year-olds who will be 18 the next November to vote in primary elections occurring before their birthdays.