Voting rights: The top 5 villains and heroes of 2013

  • Greg Abbott: Texas’ Republican attorney general has mounted a zealous legal defense of the state’s voter ID law—including the claim by his office that it’s legal because it only discriminates against Democrats, not racial minorities. Hours after the Supreme Court removed Texas from federal oversight, Abbott, who is running for governor, announced the ID measure would take effect “immediately”.
  • Ohio Republicans: In the ultimate swing state, Republicans are on the verge of passing bills that would cut early voting, end same-day registration, and destroy the state’s absentee ballot program. Taken together, the changes threaten a repeat of 2004, when some Ohioans waited ten hours or more to vote. Gov. John Kasich is expected to approve them.
  • Kris Kobach: Kansas’ Republican secretary of state is pushing a two-tiered voting system that would let those who provide proof of citizenship vote in all elections, while restricting those who don’t to federal elections. He’s also leading a data-sharing effort among states that’s aimed at finding improperly registered voters—typically an error-prone process that critics call a purge mechanism.
  • Pat McCrory: North Carolina’s Republican governor signed the nation’s most restrictive voting law—voter ID, cutbacks to early voting, an end to same-day registration, and more— though he later said he hadn’t paid much attention to the issue. The law is being challenged by the federal government, which alleges that it intentionally discriminates against minorities.
  • John Roberts: The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court wrote the opinion in Shelby County that badly weakened the Voting Rights Act, relying on a principle—“the equality of the states”—that even conservative constitutional scholars struggled to locate. The ruling appeared to cap off a decades-long effort by Roberts to undermine the most effective civil-rights law in history.
  • William Barber: In response to North Carolina’s shockingly restrictive voting law, Barber, the president of North Carolina’s NAACP chapter, led a grassroots protest movement that has drawn national attention and made him an emerging progressive hero. “We see what we are doing here in North Carolina as a model for other Southern states,” Barber has said.
  • Wendy Davis: A Democratic state senator and candidate for Texas governor, Davis challenged a Republican redistricting plan that ripped her district apart—leading to a court ruling that the scheme intentionally discriminated against minorities. And if it weren’t for Davis’ amendment to Texas’ voter ID bill, millions of Texans, predominantly women including Davis herself, could have been disenfranchised this year.
  • Eric Holder: When the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act, the Attorney General’s response was swift and decisive. He announced that the Justice Department would shift resources toward prosecuting voting rights cases under parts of the law left standing. Soon after, he unveiled federal challenges to strict voting laws in Texas and North Carolina.
  • James Sensenbrenner: This Republican congressman from Wisconsin led the 2006 effort to renew the Voting Rights Act, and remains perhaps his party’s only true voting rights champion in Congress. After the Shelby County ruling, he quickly pledged to work on fixing the law, calling it “vital to America’s commitment to never again permit racial prejudices in the electoral process.”
  • Nina Turner: An Ohio state senator, Turner, a Democrat, has led the fight against regressive voting measures in her pivotal state. Her challenge to Secretary of State Jon Husted next year will offer a choice between one candidate who wants to expand access to voting, and another whose commitment to the issue is far from rock solid.



2013 was a bad year for voting rights. The Supreme Court gutted the landmark Voting Rights Act, giving southern states a much freer hand to make election changes that hurt racial minorities. And states across the country pushed forward with restrictive laws that could make exercising the franchise much harder. But there were also some bright spots: public officials and activists stood up to the assault on voting rights and potentially laid the groundwork to reverse some of those setbacks before too long, while educating and galvanizing voters around the issue.

Here are the top 5 voting rights villains and heroes of 2013.

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