A federal trial in Milwaukee on Wisconsin’s 2011 voter ID law concluded recently, and the verdict, when it comes, will help define the future of the Voting Rights Act, which has been in question since the Supreme Court gutted a core provision, Section 5, in June. This case could also set an important precedent for lawsuits recently filed against similar laws in Texas and North Carolina. The Wisconsin law, which is now on hold, is among the strictest in the country. It requires a voter to show poll workers government-issued photo identification, like a driver’s license or passport. The law’s challengers, which include the A.C.L.U., the League of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Young Voters and several private citizens, sued under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. That section, which survived the Supreme Court’s ruling, prohibits state and local governments from imposing any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting” that has a racially discriminatory effect. The test is whether a law causes minority voters to have “less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process.” The plaintiffs presented substantial evidence that the Wisconsin statute had precisely that effect.
It’s the latest fad among state officials looking to make voting harder: We’re not racist, we’re just partisan. Some background: In June, the Supreme Court struck down a core provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, under which nine states and portions of others had to get federal approval before changing their election laws. One of those states, Texas, is again in court, facing a Justice Department suit seeking to get the state under federal oversight again. To do so, the Justice Department must prove intentional racial discrimination. Texas’ defense? It’s discrimination, all right — but it’s on the basis of party, not race, and therefore it’s O.K. Says Texas: “It is perfectly constitutional for a Republican-controlled legislature to make partisan districting decisions, even if there are incidental effects on minority voters who support Democratic candidates.” Leaving aside that whopper — laws that dilute black and Hispanic voting power have more than an “incidental” impact — the statement, part of a court filing in August, was pretty brazen. Minority voters, in Texas and elsewhere, tend to support Democrats. So Republican officials, especially but not only in the South, want to reduce early voting; impose voter-identification requirements; restrict voter registration; and, critically, draw districts either to crowd as many minority voters into as few districts as possible, or dilute concentrations of minority voters by dispersing them into as many white-controlled districts as possible.
In June, the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision disarmed Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, freeing nine states – mostly in the South – from having to submit election procedure changes for the Justice Department’s approval. The vast majority of voting laws that the department objected to as discriminatory came from towns and counties, rather than the state level. Since the ruling, such localities have seen both quiet changes to election code and also deep uncertainties among civil rights advocates who long relied on this key provision of the Voting Rights Act. The state of Georgia alone offers many examples. The city of Athens, for instance, is considering a proposal to eliminate nearly half of its 24 polling sites in favor of creating two early voting centers – both located inside police stations. Madelyn Clare Powell, a longtime civil rights activist in Athens, worries that some voters cannot regard police stations as neutral territory. “There is a major intimidation factor here – these police stations are seen by some in the community as hostile territory,” says Powell, citing historical tension between white police forces and minority communities in the region. Local activists also fear that the poll closures disproportionally impact neighborhoods with higher shares of minorities and college students, requiring three-hour bus rides for some public-transit dependent voters.
A closely watched federal trial is set to begin Monday over a Wisconsin law requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls. The outcome could set a precedent for legal challenges in dozens of states that have imposed or stiffened voter ID requirements in recent years. The Wisconsin law passed in 2011 and was in effect for the February 2012 primary, but it was later blocked when a judge handling a separate state lawsuit declared the measure unconstitutional. Advocates have pursued a federal trial while that decision and others are appealed. Supporters maintain the Republican-backed law is needed to combat voter fraud, but opponents contend it’s nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to disenfranchise poor and minority voters. Voter ID remains a contentious issue in many states. This year alone, 30 states considered legislation to introduce, strengthen or modify voter ID laws.
Texas’ strict new voter ID law is being put to its first widespread test. Early voting for the November 5 elections began Monday, and there have already been signs of trouble. Under the controversial new legislation, which supporters claim prevents fraud, all voters must supply an approved form of photo identification that exactly matches the name on their voter registration cards. The U.S. Department of Justice slapped Texas with a lawsuit over this issue in August, arguing the law disenfranchises minority voters. But it could hit women particularly hard, especially those who use their maiden names or hyphenated names. Sonia Gill, an attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, warned many voters might be in for an unpleasant surprise on Election Day. “Women in particular are going to have a difficult time because they are more likely to have changed their names and, as a result, the name on their photo ID may not match up to the name listed on their voter registration.”
A judge’s halting of Palmdale’s November election could have implications for other cities facing lawsuits under the California Voting Rights Act. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mark V. Mooney on Monday canceled the election after earlier finding that Palmdale’s at-large method of choosing council members deprived minority voters of the opportunity to elect a representative of their choice. Officials plan to appeal, with City Atty. Matthew Ditzhazy calling the ruling “wildly unprecedented and radical.” Some voters already have been sent mail-in ballots, he said. Activists seeking minority representation on city councils, school boards and other governmental bodies have been pushing for by-district elections throughout California. Ethnically diverse jurisdictions that hold at-large elections and have few, if any, minority officeholders are especially vulnerable under state law, experts said.
Texas: Rights groups seeking millions in legal fees over redistricting battle | San Antonio Express-News
Attorney General Greg Abbott’s defense of a now-defunct 2011 redistricting plan could leave the state on the hook for a roughly $6 million legal tab to pay civil rights groups that sued to block the maps. That’s the ballpark total for reimbursement requests from plaintiffs waging a years-long legal war with Abbott over redistricting maps passed by the Republican-led Legislature in 2011. Federal judges have deemed those maps discriminatory to minority voters, and they were never used. A three-judge panel in San Antonio drew interim maps for the 2012 election for the Texas House and Senate and the U.S. Congress. Led by Abbott and Gov. Rick Perry, state Republicans decided months ago to abandon the 2011 maps and replace them permanently with the political boundaries drawn by the judges. The Legislature approved the plans during a special session this summer.
Ellen Kaplan delivered a blunt message Wednesday to members of a presidential blue-ribbon panel on election reform. The 2012 vote in Philadelphia was a “national embarrassment” spoiled by massive confusion, partisanship, and mismanagement, said Kaplan, policy director of the watchdog group Committee of Seventy. She pointed to numbers such as the 26,986 provisional ballots cast, more than 12,000 of them by registered voters who should have been allowed to use voting machines, and almost 100 Republican poll inspectors who “were not permitted to sit” by their Democratic counterparts and had to get court orders. ”Perhaps,” she added, in what could be a touch of overstatement, “the worst-run election in the city’s history.”
Representative Cherrish Pryor (D-Indianapolis) complains some Marion County precincts changed polling place locations last year with no notice or explanation, often in minority neighborhoods. She charges there’s no explanation other than a deliberate effort to hold down minority turnout. Pryor wants legislators to lock in polling places two months before Election Day, and require local governments to specify the reason for making a change. But Pryor says other practices arouse suspicion as well. Pryor and other Democrats have long contended voter ID laws in Indiana and elsewhere are aimed at discouraging minority votes. Then-Representative William Crawford (D-Indianapolis) was the plaintiff in the lawsuit which unsuccessfully asked the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate such laws.
The golden anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech have appropriately fostered among a great many people unalloyed feelings of pride and nostalgia. Here was a moment of peaceful assembly, a mass redress of elemental grievances of the people, by the people, and for the people, that was capped off by one of the most memorable speeches in American history — one that has eerie relevance 50 years later. That day the meek raised their voices, sounding in the name of justice, and the rest of the nation listened. Soon there was a Civil Rights Act and, a year later, the Voting Rights Act. But as we look back closely on the events of late August 1963, we are reminded, too, of how those events were (or were not) covered by the journalists of that day. It’s easy to look back and glorify the events of August 28, 1963 — to see in speaker John Lewis, for example, a portrait of the hero he would become, 559 days later, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But that’s not necessarily how the March and the Speech were covered in real time. There was in 1963 a level of “false equivalence” in reporting on civil rights that, in the name of “objectivity,” equated black demands for racial equality with white concerns about getting there.