For far too many Americans, voting became more difficult or, in some cases, impossible in 2014.In Texas, Imani Clark, a Black state college student and client of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the lawsuit that declared Texas’s strict voter ID law unconstitutional, was unable to vote with her student ID as she had in the past. Thousands of other students like Imani were also disenfranchised. In Alabama, a 92-year-old great-grandmother was disfranchised by the secretary of state’s last-minute determination that a photo ID issued by public housing authorities is not acceptable ID for voting. She had previously voted with a utility bill.
These were familiar stories in each of the 14 states with restrictive voting laws that took effect for the first time during this election season. The new laws include strict photo ID requirements, significant reductions to early voting, limits on same-day registration, and more. All had two things in common: They were reactionary responses to changing demographics and had a disproportionate impact on communities of color.
If it were not for the U.S. Supreme Court’s devastating June 2013 decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, many of these changes likely would have been blocked by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Indeed, Texas’s photo ID measure was previously blocked from going into effect for the 2012 elections by Section 5.
For 50 years, Section 5 served as the nation’s discrimination checkpoint, requiring states with a history of discrimination to “preclear” any election law changes with the Department of Justice. But after Shelby County, many states, including Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, and Alabama, implemented restrictive, racially discriminatory laws that formerly required preclearance.
In January, a bipartisan group of congressional legislators presented the Voting Rights Amendment Act as a legislative “fix” to Shelby County, but it has yet to pass. Together, the Supreme Court’s decision and Congress’s inaction had a disturbing impact on the ability of communities of color to participate in the midterm elections.
In Texas, for example, a federal judge ruled in October that the state’s strict voter ID law was unconstitutional. The judge found that the law disproportionately affected people of color, constituted an unconstitutional poll tax, and was intentionally enacted by Texas to diminish the electoral influence of the state’s growing black and Latino populations. Unfortunately, a week later, the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily allowed the voter ID law stand for this election.
Similarly, this recent surge in voter suppression could have affected the Senate races in Virginia and North Carolina, and the governor’s race in Alabama. In Virginia, where the Senate race was decided by 16,727 voters, 198,902 registered voters may have lacked the identification needed to vote under a new voter ID law. In North Carolina, 200,000 people voted early in 2010 and, thus, were potentially impacted by severe cuts to early voting that the state passed mere months after the Shelby County decision. The Senate race there was decided by 48,511 votes. In Alabama, 250,000 to 500,000 voters were impacted by a new voter ID law and the governor’s race was decided by 320,139 votes.Today, on the other side of Tuesday’s elections, it is clear that we all have an important role to play in protecting and advancing democracy for all Americans.
First, we need to urge the U.S. Congress to pass Voting Rights Amendment Act immediately, and to push states to repeal these restrictive laws. At the same time, we need Americans to partner with organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s “eyes and ears” on the ground to help protect communities against potentially discriminatory voting changes.
Second, an essential antidote to massive voter suppression is massive voter registration. Each of the four states discussed here has a large number of eligible but unregistered voters of color. Investing in registration and turnout, as the Southern Elections Fund is doing, is an important way to shift the electoral calculus in each state – and help give voters the chance to elect candidates who want to protect, rather than restrict, the right to vote.
We invite every American to join us in urging Congress to pass the Voting Rights Amendment Act and to work to register new voters to fight back against voter suppression ahead of the next election.
Ben Jealous is Partner at Kapor Capital, Chairman of the Southern Elections Fund and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Ryan Haygood is the Deputy Director of Litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., a separate entity from the NAACP.