From Wisconsin to North Carolina to Texas, would-be voters soon will know whether the Voting Rights Act still protects them.
In Wisconsin, the first test of the Voting Rights Act post-Shelby County v. Holder is underway. Since the controversial ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in June — in which the court ruled that the federal preclearance formula used to prevent racist voter suppression in certain states and communities is dated and unconstitutional — nine states have moved to introduce stricter voting laws — including harsher requirements for voter identification, restrictions on absentee and early voting and limiting access to voting places.
Wisconsin is the first state the Justice Department has sued under Section 2 of the VRA, which prohibits states from limiting voting access to federally recognized protected groups and permits the Justice Department to file suit on the basis of racial, ethnic, age, gender, sexual preference or disability discrimination at the polling place. Wisconsin passed a law requiring a state-issued photo ID be presented in order to vote. This, in turn, would require a birth certificate, which many minorities do not have access to. Additionally, out-of-state college students might not have access to a state ID.
Rick Hasen, a University of California-Irvine law and political science professor, told Politico:
“I think that everyone’s going to be looking at what happens in Wisconsin. Whoever’s on the successful side will say, ‘See, we told you,’ and whoever’s on the losing side will either say the court got it wrong or point to factual differences [in their state], but it will be important because it’s one of the first Section 2 challenges to the voting ID law.”
In one of the two challenges being heard, the American Civil Liberties Union argues that Ruthelle Frank, an 86-year-old resident of Brokaw, Wis., and a member of the Brokaw Village Board since 1996, is being unfairly discriminated against because — although the state Register of Deeds bears a record of her live birth — the record has her maiden name incorrectly spelled. As a result, all of her vital certifications would be inadequate under the law toward obtaining a voting ID, while correcting the error would be costly for an elderly woman on a fixed budget. The ACLU argues that the Wisconsin law places Frank under an undue financial burden in order to exercise her right to vote.
The amended ACLU complaint also list Eddie Lee Holloway, Jr. as a co-plaintiff. Holloway’s birth certificate lists Holloway’s name as “Eddie Junior Holloway” — a clerical error reflecting the way names were listed when Holloway was born. Despite the fact that the birth certificate lists Holloway’s father as “Eddie Lee Holloway” or that both Holloway’s Social Security Card and expired Illinois photo ID bear Holloway’s name as “Eddie L Holloway Jr..” the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles refused to issue a new photo ID to Holloway due to the birth certificate error. Disabled, unemployed and homeless, Holloway cannot afford to have his birth certificate amended — and as such, is not only denied the right to vote, but access to disability benefits and medical attention he desperately needs.
In the second challenge — brought by the Advancement Project and argued by Arnold & Porter, LLC — the Wisconsin law is alleged to be intentionally creating an unfair burden of proof on voters of color, which effectively excludes hundreds of thousands of Black and Latino voters. The argument that such laws are needed to fight voting fraud is a false argument, alleges the challenge, as Wisconsin has virtually no voter fraud.
In the last 13 years, Wisconsin has had 57 substantive allegations of voter fraud, per News21, which conducted a thorough auditing of voting violations accusations. Not counting incidents in which individuals that held a felony conviction voted, there have been only four convicted cases of voter fraud in the state. This represents a microscopic number compared with the successful votes cast.
“The politicians who passed this law are not trying to stop voter fraud; they are trying to restrict voting,” said Advancement Project Co-Director Penda Hair. “As the world’s leading democracy, our elected officials should be working to keep our voting system free, fair and accessible to all Americans.”
The need for rights protection
The second challenge’s chief plaintiff, Bettye Jones, who died last fall at the age of 78, was denied the right to vote when she moved to Wisconsin after voting and spending most of her adult life in Tennessee. Like many elderly Blacks from the South, Jones didn’t have a birth certificate — typically, births were recorded locally and the information was not necessarily passed to the state’s register — particularly during times of heavy discrimination. Spending a great deal of money and time, Jones compiled a compelling catalogue of collaborating information confirming her identity and citizenship in lieu of a birth certificate, which the DMV clerk accepted extralegally as proof of birth.
While Jones was fortunate to find a sympathetic clerk, not everyone is so lucky. As reported by the Advancement Project:
“Rickey Davis, an Army veteran who served as a sergeant in the 82nd Airborne and was honorably discharged in 1978, also testified about his difficulty to obtain a state-issued photo ID. When he twice attempted to get a Wisconsin ID a few years ago, having moved from Illinois in 2006, he presented several forms of documentation, including his veterans ID card, military discharge papers, and a Social Security card. Yet Mr. Davis was turned away because he did not have a copy of his birth certificate.
“Carmen Cabrera of Centro Hispano Milwaukee detailed her organization’s grassroots outreach around the voter ID law. She stated that many members of Wisconsin’s Latino community lack state ID and face various challenges to obtaining photo ID, including language barriers (both a lack of Spanish language materials, and a limited availability of Spanish-speaking DMV clerks); not understanding where to go for help; and being unaware of the voter ID requirement. Ms. Cabrera also explained the special burden on voters born in Puerto Rico, where the government invalidated all birth certificates issued before July 2010. To get photo ID, these citizens must first obtain new Puerto Rican birth certificates, costing extra time and money.”
Concerning North Carolina
This trial will be the first of many. In North Carolina, the Justice Department has announced that it will sue the state for its suite of voter suppression laws — the most aggressive attempt to disenfranchise the vote since the Civil Rights movement. In addressing the need to respond to North Carolina’s pushback against voting access, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder argued that “the state legislature took aggressive steps to curtail the voting rights of African-Americans.”
“This is an intentional attempt to break a system that was working,” Holder continued.
Besides the DOJ suit, North Carolina is also being sued by the League of Women Voters of North Carolina and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in light of a voter suppression law that shortens the early voting period by a week and ends straight-ticket — or party-bloc — voting.
In addition, the law:
— removes same-day registration
— ends non-home precinct voting
— invites more observers to oversee voting
— requires a federal or state ID to vote and bans student IDS as valid voting identification
— removes the requirement that candidates have to identify themselves in campaign ads
— restricts the voting access of college students living away from home
— loosens contribution limits for candidates
“This is not simply a voter ID bill, and to portray it as such is not accurate,” said Thomas Walker, the U.S. Attorney from North Carolina’s Eastern District, which stretches from Raleigh to the coast. “For example, 70 percent of all African American voters who voted last year did so during early voting – a fact the state chose to quickly ignore in cutting early voting opportunities. Today we said they shouldn’t have. To pretend that those actions have no discriminatory impact on minorities is to deny reality.”
“I firmly believe we’ve done the right thing. I believe this is good law. And I strongly disagree with the action that the attorney general has taken,” Gov. Pat McCrory (R) told reporters.
North Carolina GOP may have had its hand tipped inadvertently, however, when on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” Don Yelton, a North Carolina precinct captain, told Aasif Mandvi: “The law is going to kick the Democrats in the butt … If it hurts a bunch of college kids who are too lazy to get off their bullhonkers to get a photo ID, so be it. If it hurts the Whites, so be it. If it hurts a bunch of lazy Blacks that want the government to give them everything, so be it.”
When Mandvi remarked to Yelton that those he marked as possibly being hurt tend to vote Democrat, Yelton sarcastically remarked, “Gee! I can’t believe that we have that many stupid people in North Carolina that people don’t know how to follow directions and go down there and get a photo ID for free from the DMV? You want those people picking your president?”
Yelton has since resigned and the state GOP has denounced his comments.
The Republicans hold a unified government in North Carolina for the first time in recent memory and it is felt that the state Republicans are trying to “stack the cards” to avoid Democrats retaking one or both houses in the state legislature or the governor’s mansion.
Meanwhile, in Texas…
In Texas, the new voter ID law is so restrictive that the former Speaker of the House Jim Wright was denied a photo ID. “Nobody was ugly to us, but they insisted that they wouldn’t give me an ID,” Wright said to the Star-Telegram.
The same law that snagged Wright threatens to snag between 600,000 and 800,000 who cannot secure a certified copy of their birth certificate — most of whom are Latino in this future swing-state. Texas Republicans — desperate to maintain their twenty-plus years’ control on state power — are increasingly ratcheting up the stakes on voter disenfranchisements; including checking IDs against voter registrations, redistricting and changing early voting hours.
“I earnestly hope these unduly stringent requirements on voters won’t dramatically reduce the number of people who vote,” Wright continued. “I think they will reduce the number to some extent.”
With one-third of Texas’s counties not having a DMV office, the state is also charging a fee in order to secure the needed documentation, which many poor residents cannot afford. As only 50 of the 600,000 to 800,000 registered voters that need voter identification in the state have successfully secured it, incidents like ones in which a district court judge, a state senator and both parties’ frontrunners for governor — State Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) and State Sen. Wendy Davis (D – Fort Worth) — were forced to sign affidavits in order to vote are bound to continue.
Like Wisconsin, Texas Republicans argued that this is needed to combat voter fraud, despite the fact that there has been only one conviction for voter fraud in the state since 2000. As many as one in seven Texas voters stand to be disenfranchised with this law, and if the 2014 gubernatorial election — as is currently predicted — hinges on how women vote, this effort could seriously undercut Davis’ prospects.
“In 2011, Davis introduced an amendment to the voter ID bill saying that if names are substantially similar but not identical, voters can sign an affidavit and still vote. The original bill as drafted by Republicans would have required voters in that situation to present a document showing a name change — something few people bring with them when they go to vote.”
“And it gets better — or worse. Greg Abbott, the front-runner for the GOP nomination for governor, also will have to sign an affidavit, his campaign said, thanks to a similar names mismatch. Abbott, the state attorney general, has defended the voter ID law in court. ‘If it weren’t for Wendy Davis’ leadership, Greg Abbott might have nearly disenfranchised himself,’ Davis spokesman Bo Delp said.”
In all, 17 states have passed 24 new voting restrictions in the last two years, with more currently pending.
Currently, 24 states have laws restricting the vote. While the result of this trial is unlikely to change the attitudes of the two sides of this argument, it will highlight the long, bumpy road ahead for defense of voting rights and the need to re-establish automatic protections for this most sacred right.