As fate would have it, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act coincides with the first 2016 Republican presidential nomination debate. This confluence is important, for the people who will stand on the debate stage in Ohio are among those who are leading the wrecking crew trying to demolish a signature civil rights achievement and one of the most important edifices of our democracy.
The majority of states represented by at least one of the 17 announced major Republican presidential candidates – Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin – have enacted restrictions on the right to vote since 2010, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. These states are among the 21 where voting in 2016 will be harder for some people than it was in 2010. In 15 of those states, those restrictions will be in place in a federal election for the first time in 2016.
Several of the Republican candidates have played direct rules in undermining the Voting Rights Act. It was Jeb Bush who presided over Florida’s infamous voter purge when he was governor in 2000 in which African Americans were nearly 10 times as likely as whites to have their ballots invalidated. Scott Walker signed a law as governor of Wisconsin that not only imposed voter ID but also restricted early voting, including eliminating weekend voting entirely. Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed a bill that cut early voting and eliminated same-day registration. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed legislation to expand early voting there. Sen. Marco Rubio supported early voting restrictions and voter ID bills as a Florida state legislator.
This assault on the Voting Rights Act is not new, as veteran political writer Jim Rutenberg chronicled in The New York Times Magazine this past Sunday. “It involves a largely Republican countermovement of ideologues and partisan operatives who, from the moment the Voting Rights Act became law, methodically set out to undercut or dismantle its most important requirements,” he wrote. But a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court opened the doors wide for the assailants when in 2013 it struck down a core provision of the Voting Rights Act designed to keep in check states and localities that had a prior history of voter discrimination and to ferret out voting rules that has a disparate impact on the basis of race.
The laws unleashed as a result of that ruling were couched under such euphemisms as “voter protection” and “voter integrity,” but their appearance in the wake of the election of the first African-American president and a general progressive surge at the polls, led by people of color, women and millennials, was no accident. President Obama called out the laws at a White House commemoration today, calling them “provisions specifically designed to make it harder for some people to vote. Laws that roll back early voting. Laws with restrictive photo ID requirements. Laws that lead to improper purges of voter rolls.”
This week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that a voter identification law in Texas violated a still enforceable provision of the Voting Rights Act that prohibits laws that have a racially discriminatory effect. One of the findings of the court was that African-American voters were three times less likely to have one of the IDs required to vote than whites, and Hispanic voters were twice as likely not to have the required ID.
Another set of voter restrictions is under challenge in a North Carolina federal court, and a ruling there is expected in several weeks. In addition to a voter ID requirement, the Republican-controlled state legislature there eliminated same-day voter registration, shortened the time for early voting, and eliminated a pre-registration program for 16- and 17-year-olds.
The Rev. William Barber, leader of the North Carolina NAACP and the “Moral Mondays” campaign against what he calls the right-wing extremism of the North Carolina legislature, today condemned the state legislature for passing a bill to protect the display of the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments. “Those committed to white supremacy were waving confederate flags in defiance of the Voting Rights Act,” Barber said, adding, “Our current legislature and governor will protect monuments and flags of our racist past that fuels racism in our present, but they refuse to protect voting rights.”
In contrast to the Republican candidates, the three top Democratic presidential candidates have called for major expansions of the right to vote – not constructions on the ability to vote.
Hillary Clinton posted on her Facebook page a video that pays tribute to the fight for the Voting Rights Act and reprises her speech before Texas Southern University in June, in which she says, “We should be clearing the way for more people to vote, not putting up every roadblock anyone can imagine.”
Bernie Sanders, writing in The Huffington Post, linked the Republican effort to suppress the vote with the post-Citizens United domination of the political system by the wealthy, calling the combination “a two-pronged attack on our democracy.”
“The fight for minority voting rights is a fight for justice” he wrote. “It is also inseparable from the struggle for democracy itself. When the votes of minorities are suppressed, it becomes easier for politicians who represent billionaires and corporations to win and hold elected office.”
Martin O’Malley earlier this week called for a constitutional amendment to guarantee a right to vote, which is embodied in legislation introduced earlier this year in the House by Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.). “Passing a constitutional amendment that enshrines that right will give U.S. courts the clarity they need to strike down Republican efforts to suppress the vote,” O’Malley has said.
Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley – as do most Democrats – share support for strengthening the Voting Rights Act, particularly by restoring the preclearance provision that was struck down by the Supreme Court and updating it to take into account the 21st-century realities of voter suppression tactics. They would support expanding access to early voting and automatic voter registration of 18-year-olds.
Lowering barriers to the ballot for every American should be a bedrock principle that should not be up for partisan dispute. But it isn’t, and thus at a time when the nation should be united in celebrating the inclusion of every American in our democracy, we will instead witness presidential candidates compete to be the voting-rights-denier-in-chief. It is a sad reminder of how far we have yet to go on the road to equality and justice.
Jacob Woocher contributed to this post.