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Revitalizing American Democracy

“The vote is precious. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democratic society, and we must use it.” John Lewis  

Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to ensure that state and local governments do not deny American citizens the equal right to vote based on their race, color, or membership in a minority language group. This legislation granted the right of every citizen an equal opportunity to participate in our democracy. Before the Voting Rights Act was passed, southern states imposed various restrictions to discriminate against potential Black voters, including literacy tests, poll taxes, property ownership requirements, etc. Initially, only white men who owned property were eligible to vote, which made up only 6% of the country; by the end of 1965, there were 250,000 new Black registered voters.  

The Voting Rights Act has gone through several extensions: 1970, 1975, 1982, 1992, and 2006. Although this piece of legislation was put into place to eliminate restrictions to voting, some states imposed laws that disproportionately impacted minority voters; for example, Florida passed a law that restricted voter registration and cut early voting; other states have attempted to impose restrictive voter registration ID laws. In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act with their ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The Court invalidated the conditions, which determined that jurisdictions with a history of discrimination needed approval before changing voting rules (“preclearance”).  

 Although the Voting Rights Act has been around since 1965, the ruling in the Shelby case has given states a loophole in ways to discriminate against voters. Instead of guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar, paying a poll tax, or reciting the Constitution, minority voters are now faced with new forms of voter suppression. 

Modern-day voter suppression is now made up of voter ID laws, purging, poll closures, and other exclusionary tactics. 

Thirty-six states require voters to show some identification at the polls. Many states require government-issued photo-ID, and this disproportionately affects low-income, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, and people with disabilities who cannot afford the ID or cannot obtain the documents necessary that are a prerequisite to get government issues photo ID card.   

 Purging is another form of voter suppression. State election officials must keep voter registration records up to date by canceling records of people who have died, are imprisoned, have moved to another state, or become legally incompetent. A few states go further and purge voters from state records who have not voted in several consecutive elections and have not responded to a letter asking them to confirm their residence. Voter purging leads to the deletion of thousands of registered voters each year, and by the time the voter finds out, it is too late to register for the upcoming election and they cannot cast a ballot. The Constitution grants American citizens the right to choose if they want to vote or not and not be penalized for it. Still, a handful of states engage in this form of voter suppression, assuming that not voting in recent elections or not returning the mailed notice is an indication that those voters have moved to a different jurisdiction.  

 Since the Shelby decision, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights found that states with a history of racial discrimination have closed hundreds of voting locations since the court ruled that they did not need federal approval to change their laws. The closure of polling precincts has lead to more confusion on Election Day about where communities can cast their vote and longer lines that dissuade voters from wanting to cast their ballot. 

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, between January 1 and December 27, 2021, at least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting. Specifically, in Florida, Senate Bill 90 became law in 2021 which adds unnecessary restrictions to every stage of the vote by mail process, making it harder for voters to request a vote by mail ballot and return their completed ballots. 

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund sued the State of Florida in May 2021. The suit challenges multiple provisions in S.B. 90, including 

  • New and burdensome identification requirements for voters requesting vote-by-mail (“VBM”) ballots; 
  • Restrictions and burdensome requirements for standing VBM applications; 
  • Severe limitations on where, when, and how drop boxes can be used; and
  • Limitations on third-party VBM ballot return. 

According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Florida’s S.B. 90 is just one of the many voter suppression bills driven by baseless allegations of fraud introduced in the wake of the 2020 election. Legislators follow the same model to restrict voting access – using false information to stoke fear in an otherwise secure electoral process. As of May 2021, the Brennan Center’s State Voting Bills Tracker counts 389 restrictive voting bills introduced in legislatures across the country. 

In Georgia, legislators have enacted burdensome, unjustified, and unnecessary restrictions on voters by imposing narrow identification requirements for requesting and casting an absentee ballot, imposing restrictions on drop boxes, drastically reducing early voting in runoff elections, and making it a crime for volunteers to provide water and snacks to voters waiting in line.

In Michigan, legislators have introduced 39 voter suppression bills just months after a record 5.5 million people voted. Among the restrictions included in the bills, absentee ballots could only be returned using a dropbox until 5 p.m. the day before the election; the Secretary of State would be prevented from sending out mass absentee ballot applications, and prepaid postage for absentee ballot return envelopes would be prohibited.

In September 2021, Texas passed an extremely restrictive voting bill, S.B. 1. Among the measures that will impact voters of color, S.B. 1 reduces early voting hours and eliminates 24-hour voting, eliminates drive-thru voting centers, prohibits mail-in ballot drop-boxes, and places new restrictions on the distribution of mail-in ballots and mail-in ballot applications.

The right to vote should be a seamless, easily-accessible process for American citizens, but without a federal law mandating such a process, too many obstacles will continue to be put into place to make it difficult for the American people to vote. As Congressman John Lewis reminded us: “Too many people struggled, suffered, and died to make it possible for every American to exercise their right to vote.”

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