Voting Laws: The New Grandfather Clauses
Recently, changes to voting laws and district boundaries have caused an uproar; many allege that these new rules stand to disenfranchise certain groups of people, potentially sway election results in favor of one party over another. Redistricting and revisions to voting laws are not new concepts; every census requires officials to draw new election maps, and issues of voting rights, voter fraud, and election fraud have long been the focus of legislation. However, the point is not that recent changes are unprecedented, but rather, that they recall painful moments of discrimination from our past that we ought not repeat.
Take, for example, the issue of race and income in these new measures. Historically, laws that revoke a person’s right to vote after a felony conviction, permanently or for long periods of time with an arduous appeal process, disproportionately affect minority voters. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, and as of 2001, one in six African American men and one in one hundred African American women have been imprisoned during their lifetime. African Americans and Hispanics comprised 58 percent of all prisoners in 2008. In several states, depending on the severity of the crime, felons may be permanently disenfranchised, sometimes for a mere misdemeanor conviction, or prohibited from voting until they complete their sentences or receive parole. Strict felony voting laws severely compromise the enfranchisement of minority groups.
Photo ID laws also disproportionately affect minorities and low-income voters. According to a Reader Supported News article, “More than a dozen states, from Texas to Wisconsin and Florida, have passed laws designed to impede voters at every step of the electoral process, whether by requiring birth certificates to register to vote, restricting voter registration drives, curtailing early voting, requiring government-issued IDs to cast a ballot, or disenfranchising ex-felons.”
Last year, seven states added a photo ID requirement to their voting laws, even though many Americans do not have the necessary forms. Senior citizens and low income citizens are particularly affected by these regulations, and research suggests that as many as one in four African Americans do not possess a valid photo ID. Likewise, rules that disallow early voting and restrict voting hours disproportionately affect minority and working voters, who often cannot take time off work to vote. Luckily, we no longer have polling taxes, but these laws can be just as prohibitive. The mere threat or rumor that one may be barred from voting, regardless of the law, still works to discourage certain people from even trying to vote.
Some argue that these laws also disenfranchise people who tend to vote for a certain party and ultimately decide elections by redistributing or prohibiting votes. Democrats and Republicans have accused each other of gerrymandering, especially during presidential elections. Recently, organizations such as the ACLU have alleged that certain politicians have employed “robocalls” and distributed fake polling times to prevent certain people from voting. Thanks to the Citizens United decision, candidates can use Super PACs to intimidate voters and rig elections without jeopardizing the candidates they represent. The stakes are quite high for both political parties this year; many experts are paying close attention to newly proposed voting laws and Supreme Court rulings because these laws may in fact decide the election and the political climate for the next four years.
Steps have been taken to ensure that people are not unjustly disenfranchised. In December 2011, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder declared that the Justice Department would be closely scrutinizing new voting laws and proposed prohibiting gerrymandering, the distribution of false information as a deterrent, and enabling automatic registration for eligible voters. In March 2012, the Justice Department’s civil rights division struck down a Texas law requiring voters to present photo IDs at the polls. These measures help, but it is also up to all registered voters not to only know our rights and to advocate for fair voting laws, but also to vote for elected officials who will ensure that civil rights are upheld and no political party sacrifices constitutional rights to gain power.