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    ‘VRA’



    The Unsupervised Classroom: Why Changes to the VRA Opened a Can of Worms

    Monday, February 3rd, 2014

    I’ve got good news and bad news…and for the sake of ending on a good note, I’ll start with the bad:

    In the summer of 2013, the US Supreme Court reviewed and phased out section 4b of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). (You can read section 4b of the VRA of 1965 here.)

    If all of this doesn’t seem like a big deal, think again. Say “Goodbye,” to Federal Preclearance and brace yourself for the wrath of States Rights.
    Imagine a classroom full of 5th graders. Now, imagine the teacher leaving the classroom unattended for a few minutes. We’ve all experienced it, the classroom becomes a free-for-all: some kids stand on chairs, some throw paper balls, and others take out snacks to sneak a munch or three. Let’s not apply this analogy too strictly, but in a way, when the Supreme Court eliminated section 4b of the VRA, some states took on the persona of an unsupervised 5th grader. In this situation we have 3 students: Arizona, Kansas and Texas.

    Student One: Arizona. Here, it is now required that citizens submit “sufficient” proof of citizenship in order to vote in the upcoming election. (A list of acceptable documentation for proof of citizenship is here.)

    What does this mean? Voters who register with the federal form, and those who have recently moved (since they will have to register in a new county) will be excluded from voting in the upcoming state/local level elections (Governor, Attorney General, etc…) unless they provide additional/affirmed documentation of citizenship.

    *cough* SHOW ME YOUR FREEDOM PAPERS! *cough* Excuse me.

    Student Two: Kansas, where a similar approach has been taken on, first time voters are being prompted to provide proof of citizenship, in addition to fulfilling the requirements on the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) federal form.

    What does this mean? New registrants cannot vote in federal elections unless they provide proof of citizenship. In the event that the new voter sends in the NVRA form only, he/she will be placed on a “suspense list” and will not be permitted to vote until providing proof of citizenship.

    Student Three (my personal favorite): Gool Ol’ Texas, which is prompting voters to provide a photo ID when voting in person.

    What does this mean? Texas voters are now required to present an approved form of photo identification in order to vote in all Texas Elections. (Here is a list of the acceptable forms of photo ID.) Seems fair enough, but what makes this law particularly tricky is that it disproportionately affects minority voters.

    Since elimination of section 4b interferes with enforcement of section 5, lets just say that the Supreme Court opened a figurative can of worms. And while there is nothing wrong with States’ rights, lest we forget, in the past they have been used to justify some more than questionable policies—such as Jim Crow and discriminatory marriage laws.

    Now here’s the good news:

    It’s up to us as to combat voter disenfranchisement. We can pressure our lawmakers by informing, educating, uniting, writing letters, emails, making phone calls and most of all voting. While we may not have the same views, it is our responsibility to make sure that our voices are heard.

    “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” – Justice Ginsburg

    I have a feeling this is the start of what will be an…interesting few years for voter rights in the upcoming elections. Be sure to stay tuned to Rock the Vote for updates and followups on the VRA and state voter legislation.

    And remember…don’t ditch your water repellant gear just yet, it’s still raining out there.

    Saundrea "Drea" Shropshire
    Bio: Saundrea "Drea" Shropshire is currently a senior at Howard University. Majoring in Political Science and minoring in Swahili Studies, she plans to attend law school in the fall of 2015. An avid biker, knitter, painter, movie enthusiast, music junkie, reader and writer, she takes on all tasks with the utmost tenacity and dedication. She also has many leather-bound books, and her apartment smells of rich mahogany.

    Email the author at: blog(at)rockthevote.com



    Why Voting Rights Aren’t Just for Old People

    Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

    By RTV Guest Blogger Dale Ho, ACLU Voting Rights Project (see bio below)

    In a continuation of trends from previous elections, voters under the age of 30 turned out in record numbers in last year’s election, leading many analysts to suggest that they played a decisive role in the presidential race.  But many of those young voters might not have been able to participate at all if the Supreme Court’s recent ruling striking down a crucial part of the federal Voting Rights Act (“VRA”) had been in effect last year.

    The Supreme Court in the Shelby County case, however, eliminated that crucial protection.  The Court declared that the part of the VRA that determines which states are subject to the preclearance requirement is out-of-date, and therefore unconstitutional, striking down the law. First, some background.  Earlier this week, the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder struck down a key provision of the VRA.  The provision of the VRA in question related to what’s known as federal “preclearance” of voting laws: the VRA required certain states and counties that have a history of voting discrimination – places like Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Florida – to get approval or preclearance from the federal government before making any changes to their voting laws.  Over the past three decades, this provision of the VRA blocked over 700 discriminatory voting laws from going into effect.

    That decision could prove devastating for the voting rights of all citizens, particularly young voters. In last year’s presidential election alone, the VRA’s preclearance requirement enabled thousands of voters to cast a ballot free from discrimination or other interference.  For example, in one case being litigated by the ACLU, Texas attempted to implement a law that would have, among other things, prohibited voters from using student ID cards to verify their identities at the polls (but would have permitted the use of concealed handgun licenses).

    Thankfully, the VRA blocked that discriminatory law, and several others, in advance of the election.  But had the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County been in effect, an estimated 600,000 registered voters in Texas – who do not own the type of ID that Texas demanded at the polls – could have been denied their right to vote.  In addition to young voters, poor and elderly voters – who are less generally less likely to own a car (and thus, a driver’s license) – would also have been disproportionately affected.

    So why did the Supreme Court strike down this essential provision of the VRA?  The plaintiff in the case, Shelby County, Alabama, argued that it is unfair to require some states but not others to seek approval from the federal government before changing their voting laws.  A majority of the Court agreed.

    But that’s hardly a reason for scrapping a law that has and continues to do so much good.  If anything, the last election showed that we need more, rather than fewer, protections for our right to vote.  And, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted during the oral argument in Shelby County, the state of Alabama was found to have violated the Voting Rights Act over 100 times since 1982.  The fact that other states like Ohio or Pennsylvania have also engaged in bad behavior hardly seems like a reason for giving Alabama a free pass.

    Moreover, what was crucial about the VRA is that it blocked discriminatory voting laws before they went into effect.  Outside of the voting context, most anti-discrimination laws operate after discrimination has already occurred – say, if your employer pays you less because you’re a woman or you’re gay, you often sue afterwards, and then, if you prove your case, you then get awarded backpay.

    But that kind of process doesn’t work in the elections context – you can’t re-do a discriminatory election after the fact,  which is why it is so crucial to prevent discriminatory voting laws before they are implemented.  But now, after the Supreme Court’s decision, voters who suffer discrimination will generally only be able to sue after their voting rights have been infringed – and, even if they prove their case, we all will still have to live with the results of an unfair and unlawful election.

    The Supreme Court ignored that fact.  It also ignored its own precedent, as the Court had previously upheld the preclearance requirement as constitutional in four separate decisions spanning four decades.  And, the Court ignored the fact that strong bipartisan majorities in Congress – voted in favor of Section 5 and its geographic scope in 2006.  Young voters – like all Americans – have expressed profound disappointment about the inability of Democrats and Republicans to come together in Washington, but the near-unanimity about the continuing need for the VRA from both sides is remarkable.  In determining what to do next, we hope Congress will approach this issue with the same bipartisan spirit that it did when it last reauthorized the VRA seven years ago.

    Safeguarding the fundamental right to vote of all Americans – young and old alike – demands no less.

    Mr. Dale Ho’s Biography: Dale Ho is the director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, where he supervises the ACLU’s docket of voting rights litigation. His work includes litigation under the Voting Rights Act; combating barriers to voter registration and ballot access; and expanding access to the franchise. Dale has testified on election reforms in various state legislatures around the country, and is a frequent commentator on voting rights issues, appearing on television programs including Hardball with Chris Matthews, Up with Chris Hayes, and ViewPoint with Elliot Spitzer. He is an adjunct professor of law at Brooklyn Law School and New York Law School, and has published over half a dozen academic articles in law reviews including the Florida Law Review, the Richmond Law Review, the Harvard BlackLetter Law Journal, and the Stanford Law & Policy Review. Prior to joining the ACLU, he was Assistant Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; an associate at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP; and a judicial law clerk, first to Judge Barbara S. Jones, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, and then to Judge Robert S. Smith, New York Court of Appeals. Dale is a graduate of Yale Law School and Princeton University.
    Guest
    Bio: This is a guest blog account. Have a blog you want to share with the RTV community? E-mail us at streetteam@rockthevote.com and we'll go from there!

    Email the author at: blog(at)rockthevote.com



    The Supreme Court Strikes Down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act

    Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

    The Supreme Court has made a ruling on the Voting Rights Act case of Shelby County v. Holder, which catapulted Section 5 of the VRA into the spotlight. Today’s close ruling of 5-4 did not specifically strike down Section 5 but rather invalidated the formula used to determine which states are covered by that section of the Voting Rights Act.

    In the decision given by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4, which outlines a coverage formula that dictates which states qualify for the restrictions upheld in Section 5. The majority ruled that this section was unconstitutional: “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”

    The Court has now passed the baton to Congress, whose members will now be responsible for remapping and reevaluating the formula for determining which states still need to be closely monitored by the stipulations of Section 5. As with many major Supreme Court cases, the decision means that a lot of work by Congress and by civil rights activists remains to be done.

    Section 4 of the VRA has not attracted as much attention as Section 5, but is equally important as it directly impacts the feasibility and reach of the anti-discrimination laws currently in place. In 1965 when the VRA was first enacted, states with less than 50% voter turnout and had discriminatory practices such as literacy tests or poll taxes were required to appeal to the federal government for pre-clearance before changing any voting practices. States and districts that had history of discrimination could apply for a bailout under Section 4, meaning that the if they had not shown signs of prejudiced voting practices for 10 years, they would be eligible to be removed from the jurisdiction of Section 5 law. As it stands today, 9 states, 12 cities, and 57 counties must get approval from the Justice Department before changing voting laws. The issue that was decided on by the Justices today concerned the fact that although the Voting Rights Act was renewed in 2006, the data used to determine the coverage formula is from 1972. The Court believes that the VRA must evolve with changing attitudes and practices in the states. What is concerning now is because Congress is so polarized, it will be difficult for them to agree on a new coverage formula.

    Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg released a statement of dissent, which also reflected the opinions of Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan: “The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective. The Court appears to believe that the VRA’s success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that pre-clearance is no longer needed.”

    The implications of the Court decision will be severe if Congress fails to produce a new method of determining a new coverage formula. Issues that have affected minority voters will most likely arise again, including voter ID laws (in which states require voters to bring photo ID with them if they want to cast a ballot), gerrymandering (a practice of redrawing district lines to net more votes, oftentimes based on the race of the people in these districts), and more.

    Without the rules set by Section 4, the protections afforded by Section 5 are undermined. Although today’s decision was a setback to voting rights, this is a crucial time for voting rights activists to continue the push for fair representation on behalf of all people affected by this decision. And that’s exactly what WE WILL do.

    jen.y@rockthevote.com
    Bio: My name is Jen Yam and I am a rising senior at Duke University pursuing a public policy major and neuroscience minor. I am a New York native and love music (both playing and listening) and reading. I am working in the political department here at Rock the Vote for the summer.

    Email the author at: blog(at)rockthevote.com