On Thursday, August 6, the 2016 presidential race will unofficially begin with the first Republican debates. Seventeen candidates will take the stage (10 during the primetime event) to present their platforms and attempt to woo the American voter.
Fittingly, August 6 also marks a milestone in American voting history. It is the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Signed by President Johnson at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the Act enforced the 15th amendment to the constitution, which prohibits federal and state governments from denying the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude”. It thus extended the franchise to millions of minority voters, particularly in the south.
But as the 2016 presidential election approaches, these voting rights are in jeopardy. Empowered by a 2013 Supreme Court decision, which eliminated federal approval of state election laws, numerous states have passed voting restrictions. A further 113 bills are under consideration.
In Texas, for example, the government now requires citizens to present an acceptable ID prior to voting. Acceptable IDs include concealed hand gun permits but exclude student or government employee IDs. This threatens to disenfranchinse 600,000 registered voters in the Lone Star State.
Wisconsin has also implemented a photo ID requirement, as well as a host of other rules. The state has reduced the early voting window from 30 to 12 days, increased the required residency period from 10 to 28 days, restricted absentee ballots, and eliminated weekend and evening early voting times. Such rules could affect at least 300,000 registered voters.
However, the “country’s most rigid and unbending new voter-suppression laws”, may be in North Carolina. The state government has passed laws that “tighten photo identification requirements and restrict early voting and same-day registration”. It also eliminated a program allowing 16- and 17 year-olds to pre-register to vote at 18.
Often, proponents defend these laws as necessary to prevent illegal voting. According to Texan supporters, the laws “prevent voter fraud and assure the public that only US citizens [are] casting ballots”. But a study by Arizona State University reveals only 28 voter fraud convictions since 2000. Only 1 conviction related to voter impersonation.
Hence, critics maintain that the laws’ true goal is to lower electoral participation among minority groups. After all, research suggests that Black and Latino voters are less likely to possess acceptable IDs. They are also less likely to meet residency requirements, as “they tend to have less stable housing arrangements”. Finally, because they are concentrated in large urban centers, they suffer most from long lines due to early voting restrictions. Hence, according to a lawyer for the NAACP, “these laws will have a lasting and decisive impact on the voting rights of African Americans and Latinos…and an impact on the Voting Rights Act itself”.
On the bright side, the courts may invalidate many of these voter suppression laws. A voting rights organization filed a federal lawsuit against Wisconsin’s laws in June. A federal trial on North Carolina’s laws is underway in Winston-Salem. And just yesterday, an appeals judge deemed the Texas rule “unconstitutional”, sending it to the federal courts.
Furthermore, certain state legislatures are considering bills to actually expand voting access. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University counts 464 such bills, including bills to allow automatic voting registration (e.g. after obtaining a driver’s license) and online voting registration.
On this 50th anniversary of the Voting Right Act, let us throw our support behind the bills that advance—not reverse—voting rights in America. To learn more, please contact Project Vote, Rock the Vote[xx], the NAACP, and our partner, the New Hampshire Institute of Politics.