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Hundreds of thousands of voters may be silenced on Election Day

On November 4, voters across the country will head to the polls to exercise their most fundamental right as Americans.
A voter shows his photo identification to an election official at an early voting polling site, in Austin, Texas on Feb. 26, 2014. (Eric Gay/AP)
A voter shows his photo identification to an election official at an early voting polling site, in Austin, Texas on Feb. 26, 2014.

On November 4, voters across the country will head to the polls to exercise their most fundamental right as Americans. As the cornerstone of our system of government, voting is enshrined as a sacred act that every eligible voter should be able to freely perform. However, on this Election Day, instead of being heard, the voices of hundreds of thousands of voters may be silenced because of stringent new voting laws that have the clear effect of keeping eligible voters away from the ballot box.

In October, the United States Supreme Court issued a troubling opinion that will allow Texas to use a restrictive and discriminatory voter ID law in next week’s midterm elections. The Court’s ruling ignored a U.S. district judge’s powerful opinion describing the impact of this intentionally discriminatory law and its potential to disenfranchise more than 600,000 registered Texas voters, mostly African-American and Latino, who lack the specific forms of photo ID required under the law. And while Texas claimed the restrictive new voter ID law was necessary to prevent voter fraud, in the past nine years, from 2002 to 2011, only two in-person voter fraud cases were prosecuted in the entire state, making this a classic case of a “cure” that’s worse than the disease it’s supposed to treat.

This is a shameful but entirely predictable postscript to the Supreme Court’s decision last year in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act. As a result, for the first time in 50 years, citizens in states with some of the worst historical track records in terms of voter discrimination are again being subjected to restrictive, unjustifiable and unwarranted infringements on their right to vote. This outcome is especially galling in Texas, the state whose record of voting discrimination based on race in just the past 10 years is by far the worst in the entire country, according to a report published earlier this year by the National Commission on Voting Rights. But Texas is far from alone.

In Georgia, state and county officials have failed to process thousands of voter registration applications. North Carolina has passed a broad voting law that eliminates same-day registration and prohibits election officials from counting provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct.  And in Ohio, the state legislature went to great lengths to shorten the early voting period known as “Golden Week” when eligible voters can both complete a voter registration application and cast in-person absentee ballots during a visit to the county board of elections.

Chief Justice Roberts argued in the 2013 Shelby decision that any burden imposed on states to ensure equal voting rights must meet “current conditions.” But as the examples above demonstrate, in America today in 2014, uniform protection for all eligible voters from discriminatory voting laws is sadly still more an ideal than a reality. In fact, “current conditions” for poor and minority voters in far too many places are still hostile and characterized by laws and policies that threaten their cherished right to vote.

We cannot allow this inequality to continue - so what can we do about it? For a long-term solution, we can pressure members of Congress to act immediately when session resumes in mid-November and pass the Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. But in the interim, we must protect the right to vote now. That means an aggressive campaign to help voters get the required photo ID in the few remaining days before Election Day. Voters can call 1-866-OUR-VOTE (1-866-687-8683) to report any problems they experience while trying to vote, or to reach volunteers with the nonpartisan Election Protection national coalition for answers to questions. The bilingual English/Spanish hotline is 1-888-Ve-Y-Vota (1-888-839-8682). Voters can also download a smartphone app that features a number of helpful voting tools.

Election Protection volunteers will also be on the ground before and on Election Day in states with a history of voter discrimination, like Texas. Volunteers will work directly with communities to meet challenges to the right to vote head on and as they occur. 

We have repeatedly learned the same lesson in American history: we cannot depend solely on Congress, the courts or the states to defend our fundamental right to vote.  As voters, we must act as voting rights champions, at all levels of advocacy and work in concert to lessen the pernicious effects of discrimination on the rights of American citizens.  

Barbara R. Arnwine is president and executive director of the national Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers' Committee) and a prominent leader of Election Protection, the nation's largest nonpartisan voter protection coalition.