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'State's rights' shouldn't trump the individual right to vote

Ten years ago, I fought in 138 degree heat to give Iraqis the right to vote.
This Nov. 6, 2012 file photo shows voters lined up in the dark to beat the 7 p.m. deadline to cast their ballots at a polling station in Miami. (Photo by Wilfredo Lee/AP)
This Nov. 6, 2012 file photo shows voters lined up in the dark to beat the 7 p.m. deadline to cast their ballots at a polling station in Miami.

Ten years ago, I fought in 138 degree heat to give Iraqis the right to vote. I never thought I’d come home to see some people celebrating efforts to make it harder for Americans to vote.

Yet, last fall, insidious forces did what they could do undermine our Constitution for electoral gain. They chipped away at the right to vote. The results: long lines at the polls, where African-Americans and Hispanics waited almost twice as long as white voters to vote. And also, hundreds of thousands of American votes were cast aside via more provisional ballots, which would only be used in the event of a recount.

This week, in my home state of Pennsylvania, a trial began to once again consider the constitutionality of implementing a voter ID law, which mandates an undue burden on Americans attempting to exercise their right to vote. For example, in Pennsylvania, citizens cannot use their college IDs or veterans ID cards. Pennsylvania is not alone in this travesty. Since 2010, the American Legislative Exchange Council and many GOP-controlled states have pushed through voter ID laws allegedly for the purpose of preventing in-person voter fraud, a problem that simply doesn’t exist. The real purpose of these laws, as Pennsylvania Republican House Leader Mike Turzai has publicly admitted, is to suppress minority and Democratic votes.

Let me be clear, if someone suspects potential fraud, ask for identification. But let’s not lose sight of the facts: in Pennsylvania, there have been just 5 cases of voter fraud since 2000.  At best, this is a solution looking for a problem, and it infringes on the most basic American right.

This problem was made even worse last month when the Supreme Court delivered a knockout punch to a critical component of the Voting Rights Act. Despite claiming to uphold the Act’s Section 5 preclearance requirement–which makes several states with histories of racial discrimination first submit any changes in election procedures to Washington–the Court rejected the formula that has been the basis of the Act for more than four decades.

In doing so, the Court essentially threw the ball back to Congress, and said: “Come back to me with a better formula”–a disingenuous request knowing that the 2006 Congress tried hard to find a bipartisan way to update the Act and couldn’t come up with one.

In striking down the law, the Court stressed the principle that all states should be treated equally. Of course, the whole idea of states’ rights is that states can and will behave differently. And most of the states that were covered by the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance requirement were those that behaved for a century in a way that was utterly discriminatory and in violation of the 15th Amendment. And now we are seeing that virtually all of the states rushing to enact new voter ID laws are states that were previously covered by Section 5. Want proof? Look at the long lines in Florida last November.

To see the impact the Court’s decision might have, let’s consider two voter ID laws passed last year–the Pennsylvania law and one in Texas. Pennsylvania was not one of the states covered by Section 5, so no preclearance for the law was required. Instead, the law went into effect and was challenged in state court. The trial judge, Judge Robert Simpson, was an elected Republican and upheld the law. Only after the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, consisting of other elected judges, sent the case back to him to consider more evidence did Judge Simpson strike down the law on grounds that the state had not done enough to ensure equal access to voter ID documents.

Now consider Texas’ law, which was considered to be one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country. Because Texas was a covered state under the Voting Rights Act, it had to submit its law for preclearance, and a federal court in Washington promptly struck the law down for overburdening poor and minority voters. No further challenge was necessary.

The Texas law now is in limbo after the Court’s ruling last month. Texas’ Attorney General Greg Abbott, who’s now running for governor, tried to implement the law just hours after the Court handed down its decision. Democrats have challenged the law in federal court in Texas, but the odds of that case are uncertain. Texas’ state courts are dominated by elected Republicans who are often endorsed by the very officials writing these discriminatory laws.

The Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act based on a noble theory of treating all states as equals. But the Constitution protects the equal right to vote for all Americans as individuals, not just as residents of states. That right to vote in many cases will now depend upon the judgment of individuals who are enmeshed in the political process.

The Voting Rights Act is the result of a century of struggle, paid for by the blood and sweat of many American heroes, including my former colleague John Lewis. We’ve come far since those days, but not as far as the Court would have you believe. Congress must amend the Voting Rights Act, and ensure that everyone–everywhere–has the same right to vote. We have a great country. It would be even better if those insidious forces stopped chipping away at our fellow American’s cherished right to vote.