By Linda Stamato
It may feel like an endless political campaign already, but it’s just starting folks. The Iowa caucuses this week have given us something of an insight from voters about the Democratic Party candidates, and a fairly sure bet about what will happen in Republican primaries nationwide.
I want to jump ahead to November, though, when the nation goes to the polls to choose its next president. This crucial election is threatened by efforts to suppress voting rights. It matters!
This week we should be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution— guaranteeing that no government, federal or state, can deny voting rights to any male citizens. Yet we have cause to worry about it.
For most of that history, it’s been an uphill fight. It still is.
It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the right to vote was protected by federal power. It made a difference. Such a difference that the United States Supreme Court decided in 2013 it no longer was needed!
The three women on the Supreme Court saw through a desperate ploy, by means of a voter identification law, to racially discriminate and disenfranchise voters in Texas. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the effort “the strictest regime in the country.”
Ginsberg defended “preclearance,” a core part of the Voting Rights Act that required federal approval over changes to local election rules in places with a history of discrimination.
“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is ‘like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”’
Nonetheless, the majority on the Supreme Court saw it differently, striking down the heart of the Voting Rights Act, in Shelby v Holder.
In no small measure of irony, the Justices’ ruling came 150 years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
After the Supreme Court decision ended federal supervision of voting rights, we watched as certain states, having had the yoke lifted, rushed to limit access to the voting booth, introducing hundreds of harsh measures making it hard to vote.
These have ranged from strict photo I.D. requirements to early voting cutbacks to registration restrictions.
Fifteen states imposed stricter voter I.D. measures; 10 states made it more difficult to vote early or by absentee ballot. Three states made it harder to restore voting rights for people with past criminal convictions.
Where are we today?
The Brennan Center for Justice at Rutgers University keeps a close eye on voter restrictions, and in summary, reports the following:
- In 2016, these 14 states had new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election: Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
- In 2017, legislatures in Arkansas and in North Dakota passed voter ID bills, and Missouri implemented a restrictive law passed by ballot initiative in 2016. Texas also passed a new voter ID law, though its earlier strict voter ID law partially was in effect in 2016. Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, and New Hampshire also enacted restrictions last year, in addition to laws on the books for previous elections.
- In 2018, Arkansas, Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Wisconsin enacted new restrictions.
- In 2019, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Tennessee, and Texas did the same.
The data clearly show the growing need for federal supervision of voting rights — though supervision is harder than ever since the Supreme Court removed the teeth from the 1965 law.
America needs a new Voting Rights Act, one that ensures more universal and accessible voting options for all eligible Americans. But how likely is that?
In November 2020, the nation needs all citizens who can vote to vote. After the election, we can get on with ensuring that all eligible voters, everywhere, have no difficulty casting their votes, anywhere.
Morristown resident Linda Stamato teaches in the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and co-direct its Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Rutgers University. She also writes about topics of interest for MorristownGreen.com