Written by Tim O’Brien, Voter Protection Project Manager, League of Women Voters
Over the years we have seen a steady increase in voter suppression across the country. It is possible that when we look back at 2013 it will be seen as a watershed year — a year that America hit a turning point in the battle for voting rights and recognized that we must do what we can to expand access to the polls, instead of creating new barriers that make it more difficult to vote.
At the federal level, voting advocates celebrated a major win when the Supreme Court ruled that Arizona may not apply its documentary proof of citizenship provision to persons who apply to register to vote using the Federal Form developed through the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Subsequently, the states of Arizona and Kansas have filed suit against the federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to force the EAC to update the Federal Form. The League of Women Voters has sought to intervene in this case.
Just a week after the NVRA victory, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), effectively gutting the federal “preclearance” mechanism that had protected millions of voters by preventing discrimination in voting for more than four decades. With this decision, the floodgates have been opened for state legislatures to put in place barriers to voting in the jurisdictions with the worst records of discrimination. Indeed, within days of the Court’s decision, we saw serious actions taken against voters in several critical states that had previously been subject to VRA preclearance. The U.S. Department of Justice has made efforts to challenge these new discriminatory tactics, and we believe that Congress has the power to repair and restore the VRA.
At the state level, 2013 brought renewed attempts to restrict voting. All in all, nearly 4,000 election-related bills were introduced in state legislatures, including both pro-voter reform bills, as well as those that would make it more difficult for voters to participate in elections.
Leagues throughout the country advocated for reforms that ease access to the ballot and defended voting rights by advocating against voter suppression. In Illinois, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, successful lobbying efforts for the implementation of online voter registration helped increase access to the polls. In Florida, Illinois and Maryland, lobbying efforts helped expand early voting. Perhaps the most significant victory occurred in Florida where efforts to repeal the oppressive voting laws that resulted in long lines and numerous other problems on Election Day 2012 were successful. These efforts showed that it is possible to change the narrative and negative momentum to turn the tide towards pro-voter reforms that lower barriers and create a democracy that is accessible for all.
In addition to the now all-too-common proposed voter photo ID laws, state legislatures, emboldened by the Court’s decision on the VRA, were fixated on rolling back common-sense reforms that have been making the voting process easier for decades. For example, in North Carolina, the legislature ended same-day registration, shortened early voting, dispensed with Sunday voting and defunded programs to help pre-register 16- and 17-year-olds. With support from our legal partner, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the League of Women Voters of North Carolina has brought two legal challenges against the new North Carolina law. In addition to the lawsuits in North Carolina, the League continues to be involved with additional lawsuits across the country, including in Texas, as well as moving forward with critical legal challenges to restrictive voter photo ID laws in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
There is no doubt that 2013 has been a watershed year for voting rights. The country saw several large defeats, which led to a new focus and understanding of the true risk to our great democracy – new barriers that threaten the very foundation of our way of governing by blocking the right of eligible citizens to vote and have their votes counted. While 2013 has laid the groundwork for continued battles to protect our right to vote in 2014, the League also believes those battles will lead to a focus on pushing for expanding voting rights in the year to come.
This piece was originally published on the LWV blog
Photo credit: Thinkstock