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It’s Time to Restore and Strengthen the Voting Rights Act

In a one-year period, the US has had more proposed laws prohibiting voting than cases of actual voter fraud incidents.

Members of the NAACP marched to restore voter's rights in New York City, December 10, 2011. (Photo: Michael Fleshman; Edited: LW / TO)

If judging only by the 99 new laws proposed in 2017 to restrict registration and voting access, one might assume that voter fraud is a widespread issue.

Yet according to a study in May by the Brennan Center for Justice, of the 23.5 million votes cast in the 2016 general election, only an estimated 30 incidents across 42 jurisdictions were referred to by election officials as suspected noncitizen voting.

In a one-year period, America has had more proposed laws prohibiting voting than cases of actual voter fraud incidents. So what makes a statistically nonexistent issue warrant the current level of scrutiny or legislative action?

If the proposed cures appear worse than the problem they’re designed to solve, that’s because the problem isn’t voter fraud, but the growing number of women, people of color, young, and low-income voters filling out ballots.

Over half a century ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in order to guarantee the elimination of racial discrimination in voting. It resulted in a sharp increase in African American voter registration and has been considered the most effective piece of civil rights legislation in history.

That is, until it was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder. This decision removed the preclearance clause. Effectively, this meant jurisdictions with histories of passing discriminatory voting laws were no longer subject to federal oversight when passing voting laws that could impact minority voters.

Let me restate that: Regions with a history of racial discrimination no longer have federal oversight of their voting process.

The 2016 presidential election was the first in 50 years without the protection of the preclearance clause, and it was marked not by record-breaking turnout, but by first-time voter suppression laws in 15 states. The 52nd anniversary of the Voting Rights Act is this month, but the number of states with newly proposed voter restrictions is up to 31.

It’s time to get serious about restoring and strengthening the Voting Rights Act.

The Rising American Electorate

The Voter Participation Center reported that the fastest-growing demographics in the U.S. are unmarried women, people of color, and millennials. The center calls this group the Rising American Electorate (RAE) and notes that they make up the majority of voting-eligible Americans yet are statistically less likely to be registered to vote or engaged in the political process.

There’s a reason certain candidates don’t want that statistic to change: RAE members tend to prioritize support for working families, wage and gender equity, and a progressive economic agenda. In other words, where the RAE votes en masse, progressive candidates and issues are likely to win.

Seventeen states enforce restrictive voter ID laws that require voters to prove their legal names and addresses already, and in 2017 so far 99 bills have been proposed to restrict access to registration and voting. These increasingly rigid laws and ever-shifting rules are making it particularly difficult for people of color, women, and millennials to take part in our democracy.

Jen Tolentino, director of policy and civic tech at Rock the Vote, said that “these policies are designed to disproportionately impact people of color, with up to 25 percent of African American citizens lacking an ID, versus 8 percent of White citizens.”

Not exactly what President Johnson had in mind for the Voting Rights Act.

Young voters are particularly vulnerable, according to Tolentino, as they often move for education or work and lack government-issued IDs with a current address. “If they move to a state with a voter ID law and do not pay for an updated state ID,” says Tolentino, “they are prevented from exercising their right to vote in their community of residence.”

Tolentino explained that for transgender people, there are significant barriers and even potential humiliation at the polls if appearance and gender do not match the government-issued ID. Several states have passed voter ID laws making transgender people ineligible to update their government-issued ID until they have undergone gender reassignment surgery — which not all transgender people need or want — further compromising their rights to vote.

A recent study by Williams Institute scholar Jody Herman estimates that 30 percent of voter-eligible transgender individuals across eight voter ID states don’t have identification that aligns with their genders.

Voting While Female

While the 19th Amendment states that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” voter ID laws enacted by state and local governments disproportionately impact women, who consistently vote for Democratic candidates at higher rates than men.

Tolentino said that “across the populations most suppressed by voter ID laws — like people of color and low-income, elderly, students, and LGTBQ people — 50 percent are women. In addition, 90 percent of married women — from any group — change their name and are also impacted. So across the board, women have a more difficult time casting a ballot under these laws.”

Women — particularly the 90 percent of whom change their names when they marry or divorce — may lack a state-issued photo ID matching their current legal names. An official copy of a marriage license must be obtained to get a photo ID, which can be cost-prohibitive for some low-income women at $75 to $175, depending upon the required documents and distance of travel.

In fact, only 66 percent of voting-age women are reported to have access to documents proving their citizenship that match their current legal names. Only 48 percent have birth certificates matching their current legal names.

“These discriminatory laws create barriers and confusion to purposefully silence entire populations,” Tolentino said.

Let the People Vote

In honor of the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, and believing that it’s time for a new kind of visual weapon against these attacks, artist Ashley Lukashevsky teamed up with Amplifier and Rock the Vote to bring voter suppression to light. Her three-part illustration series is available as free high-res downloads on Amplifier’s website, as well as animated gifs.

“Voting is supposed to be the one foundational political act that all Americans have equal access to,” Lukashevsky said. “To take that away is deeply wrong and reveals so much about our broken political system.”

While restoring the full Voting Rights Act would be a significant step toward reducing discrimination in voting, on its own this step wouldn’t eliminate the issue. Many of the recent discriminatory laws passed would have been blocked by the act, but not all.

Now through Sept. 4, while the House and Senate are in recess, our representatives will be at home and available to meet with their local constituents. I encourage you to call your representative’s district office and schedule a time to talk with them about the Voting Rights Act.

It’s time not only to restore the full Voting Rights Act, but strengthen it to protect our right to vote.

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