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Pushback against voting restrictions gathers steam

From North Carolina to Missouri, advocates are reversing Republican efforts at voter suppression.
People enter Washington Mill Elementary School to cast their vote in the U.S. presidential race, Nov. 6, 2012, in Alexandria, Va.
People enter Washington Mill Elementary School to cast their vote in the U.S. presidential race, Nov. 6, 2012, in Alexandria, Va.

From Virginia to Arkansas and North Carolina to Missouri, leaders, lawyers and citizens took significant strides this week to protect voting rights. It was the strongest sign yet that the pushback against Republican efforts to curtail access to the ballot box had gathered momentum.

In Virginia, the Democratic governor made it easier for ex-felons to get their voting rights back. Advocates filed a challenge to Arkansas's voter ID law, and offered crucial new evidence about the impact of North Carolina’s cuts to early voting. And Missouri Republicans moved to establish limited early voting—a sign of the growing energy to expand ballot access in the state.

"Americans did not stand up and did not march and did not sacrifice to gain the right to vote ... only to see it denied to their kids and their grandkids."'

The efforts in Arkansas and North Carolina aim to further a strategy that's been notably effective for voting-rights advocates in recent years: the use of the courts.

"Some politicians think they can get away with suppressing the vote. We're putting them on notice with our legal challenges that they can't toy with citizens' fundamental right to cast a ballot. The people, and our democracy, deserve and demand better," said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project.

The week's developments come on the heels of President Obama’s landmark speech earlier this month at the National Action Network, where he called out Republican efforts to make voting harder, and to connect today’s fight for voting rights today to the struggle to enfranchise southern blacks half a century ago.

“Americans did not stand up and did not march and did not sacrifice to gain the right to vote, for themselves and for others, only to see it denied to their kids and their grandkids,” Obama said.

Last year alone, at least 93 restrictive voting bills were introduced in 33 states, according to a Brennan Center tally, building on an earlier wave of voter suppression laws advanced in 2011 and 2012. The vast majority were pushed by Republicans bent on making voting harder, and many disproportionately affect minority, low-income, and student voters. The most restrictive, like Texas's voter ID law and North Carolina's sweeping voting law, are being challenged in court. But that process may not move fast enough for Democrats, who are preparing for several critical midterm races that could determine control of the Senate for the rest of Obama's presidency.

The president’s dramatic intervention, aimed in large part at motivating core Democratic voters to turn out in November, ensures that the issue will remain on the front-burner through the fall.

On Friday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, picked up the baton, announcing that he’ll cut the wait period from five to three years for people convicted of violent felonies to apply to have their right to vote restored. McAuliffe also said he’d remove all drug crimes from the list of “violent” felonies. Non-violent felons have their rights automatically restored after serving their time and paying fines, thanks to a move last year by Bob McDonnell, McAuliffe’s Republican predecessor.

In Arkansas, home to a crucial U.S. Senate race this year, the A.C.L.U. filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the state’s voter ID measure.

"Some politicians think they can get away with suppressing the vote. ... The people, and our democracy, deserve and demand better."'

The suit alleges that the law, passed by Republicans in 2013, violates the state constitution, which bars any attempt to impair the right to vote. One plaintiff is a 78-year-old man who has voted all his life but lacks ID and would need to go to court to get it because, like many blacks born in the Jim Crow south, he was never issued a birth certificate. Another is a Hurricane Katrina refugee who lost all her possessions, including her ID, in the flood.

Separately, voting-rights advocates challenging North Carolina’s harsh voting law in federal court released some powerful evidence Thursday: Testimony by two leading voting experts showing that the law’s elimination of seven days of early voting—when 900,000 people voted in 2012—will lead to far longer wait times and reduce turnout, and will hit blacks hardest. The testimony is crucial for building the case that the law will make voting harder and is racially discriminatory. And because the impact of early voting cutbacks hasn’t received much academic attention, it could also prove helpful in efforts to protect early voting in other states.

Then there’s Missouri, where the state’s Republican legislature advanced bills that would amend the state constitution to establish very limited early voting—so limited, in fact, that early voting on Sundays or weeknights would be explicitly barred, and the early voting period would end a week before election day. But the effort nonetheless reveals how those looking to expand voting in the Show Me State have the upper hand: It looks to be aimed at undermining a Democratic-backed campaign for more robust early voting, lasting six weeks and including Saturday and Sunday hours.

Republicans, it appears, have concluded that the state can’t much longer remain one of just 15 with no early voting, so they’re looking to concede as little ground as possible. Still, at the same time they're pushing a different change to the state constitution in support of voter ID—creating a volatile situation for voting in Missouri.

The pushback against voting restrictions doesn’t stop there. Ohio and Illinois both may ask voters to consider changing their state constitutions to establish an affirmative right to vote. The Democratic National Committee has established a new project to register voters and advocate for expansive voting laws. And progressive movements from North Carolina to Mississippi to Texas are running their own registration and education efforts.