As a young civil rights activist, Congressman John Lewis was brutally beaten marching for the right to vote in Selma, Alabama. Lewis's heroism spurred the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the country's most important civil rights law.
But three years ago this week, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court invalidated the centerpiece of the law, ruling that states with the longest histories of voting discrimination no longer needed to approve their voting changes with the federal government. "The Supreme Court stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act," Lewis said after the decision.
That means the 2016 election is the first presidential contest in 50 years without the full protections of the VRA — and the country is witnessing the greatest rollback of voting rights since the act was passed five decades ago. This year, 17 states have new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election cycle, including laws that make it harder to register to vote, cut back early voting and require strict forms of government-issued IDs to cast a ballot that millions of Americans don't have.
These states comprise 189 electoral votes — nearly half of the Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency — and include crucial swing states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Virginia. Such efforts have been overwhelmingly backed by Republicans to target Democratically leaning constituencies, particularly people of color and young voters.
The GOP's problems with these voters have only grown worse since Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. A recent Washington Post poll showed 94 percent of African-Americans and 89 percent of Hispanics have an unfavorable opinion of Trump — record lows for a GOP nominee. Given those terrible numbers, don't be surprised if Republicans intensify efforts to make it harder to vote rather than trying to expand their political coalition.
So far, attacks on the right to vote have flown largely under the radar. While Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supporters argue over whether the Democratic primary was rigged (it wasn't), far less attention has been paid to the impact and potential ramifications of GOP-backed voting restrictions. There were 21 presidential debates during the primaries but not a single question was asked about voting rights. This remains one of the most important yet least discussed issues in 2016. Before anyone votes in November, there's a huge struggle underway that will decide how many eligible voters will be able to cast a ballot.
Lewis initiated a dramatic sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives Wednesday to protest the lack of Congressional action on gun control following the deadliest shooting in U.S. history. Given the lack of attention to the dismantling of the VRA, he may soon need to lead another sit-in to call for protecting voting rights. There's something profoundly wrong when it's easier to buy a gun than vote in many states.
Voting problems during the 2016 primaries offered a disturbing preview of what may come in November. There were five-hour lines in Maricopa County, Arizona, because election officials closed 70 percent of polling places. More than 120,000 registered voters were purged from the rolls in Brooklyn. Students waited hours to vote and longtime voters were blocked from the polls by Wisconsin's voter-ID law.
This week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals considered a new challenge to North Carolina's voting restrictions at a packed courthouse in Richmond, Virginia. A month after the Shelby decision, North Carolina passed a sweeping rewrite of its election laws, enacting strict ID requirements to vote, cutting early voting and eliminating same-day registration, out-of-precinct voting, pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds and public financing of judicial elections.
"There is no case like this," lawyer Allison Riggs of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice said in court. "There is no precedent for the rollback that [North Carolina] created impairing voting rights across the state. House Bill 589 represented the first major constriction of access to the polls in North Carolina since 1965. North Carolina picked up where history left off in 1965 right after Shelby County came down."
A panel of Democrat-appointed judges peppered the state's lawyers with questions. Did the surge of black voter registrations and the election of the first black president, who carried North Carolina by 14,000 votes in 2008, prompt Republicans to change the state's election laws? "It looks pretty bad to me, in terms of purposeful discrimination," said Judge Henry James Floyd.
Ninety-five-year-old Rosanell Eaton of Louisburg, North Carolina, made the 260-mile drive to Richmond to listen to the court case. During Jim Crow, Eaton took a two-hour mule ride to the Franklin County courthouse in eastern North Carolina to register to vote. The three white male registrars told her to stand up straight, with her arms at her side, look straight ahead and recite the preamble to the Constitution from memory. After she did that word for word, they gave her a written literacy test, which she also passed. Eaton was one of the few black individuals to pass a literacy test and make it on the voting rolls in segregated North Carolina.
But after voting for 70 years, she became a casualty of North Carolina's voter-ID law, which went into effect this year, because the name on her voter-registration card did not match the name on her expiring driver's license. Eaton undertook a herculean effort to match her various documents and comply with the law. Over the course of a month, she made 11 trips to different state agencies — the DMV, two different Social Security offices and various banks — totaling more than 200 miles and 20 hours. "It was really stressful and difficult, [a] headache and expensive, everything you could name," she said, illustrating the new difficulties voters are facing this year.
A month before North Carolina's court case, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard a similar challenge to Texas' voter-ID law, the strictest in the country; in the Lone Star State, you can vote with a handgun permit but not a student ID. Texas' law was blocked for discriminating against black and Hispanic voters before the Supreme Court gutted the VRA, but is now in effect as the courts reconsider it.
The lead plaintiff in the case, Democratic Rep. Marc Veasey, introduced legislation this week to ban modern-day poll taxes. Veasey has a framed copy in his office of his grandparents' poll tax receipts from 1948, which they had to pay to vote in rural Texas. "Voting was always of the utmost importance in my house," he tells Rolling Stone.
The Poll Tax Prohibition Act would outlaw voter-ID laws, like in Texas, that require voters to pay for underlying documentation, like a birth certificate, in order to receive a supposedly "free" ID for voting.
The legislation was inspired by people like Sammie Bates, a 72-year-old grandmother who remembers watching her grandmother count the money to pay her poll tax in Mississippi. When she tried to get a voter ID after moving from Illinois to Texas in 2011, Bates was told she'd need to produce a copy of her birth certificate from Mississippi, which costs $42. That was a lot of money for Bates, who lives on $321 a month. "I had to put $42 where it would do the most good," she testified. "We couldn't eat the birth certificate."
Veasey recently launched the first ever Congressional Voting Rights Caucus to raise awareness about attacks on voting rights. Seventy-one members have signed on, including John Lewis. "We need to educate the public on the current voter-suppression tactics taking place nationwide," Veasey says. "Then hopefully by launching the caucus we can create and advance legislation that blocks current and future voter suppression and discriminatory tactics." The introduction of Veasey's bill Thursday kicked off a national day of action to protect voting rights, two days ahead of the Shelby County anniversary.
However, in a sign of the growing partisan divide on voting rights, no Republicans have joined the caucus and few have signed on to legislation to restore the VRA. "It's time that they show the public, given everything that's going on with Donald Trump, that they don't want to be defined as a party that has been hostile to African-Americans and Hispanics," Veasey says. "If they want to prove that's not who they are, they should step up and start sponsoring some of these pieces of legislation."
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