Where is Voter Discrimination the Worst?


August 6, 2014

Voting discrimination persists nationwide, but the worst offenders today are still southern states with a history of such actions, according to a new report that examined 18 years of lawsuits, challenges and settlements.

fThe report, by the National Commission on Voting Rights, is the most comprehensive look at voter discrimination since 2006, when Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act. Congress had commissioned a similar report in the lead-up to the reauthorization.

The commission was formed in the wake of Shelby v. Holder, the landmark June 2013 Supreme Court ruling that overturned a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. The provision had required that nine states with a history of discrimination, and a handful of counties in other states, submit all voting-law changes to the federal government for preclearance.

The court rejected that provision, saying that in a post-civil rights era, it was no longer necessary or constitutional to single out these states because of their history.

After Shelby, the commission, a consortium of more than 12 civil rights groups, set out to gather a current record of racial voting discrimination and other election administration problems from 1995 through June 2014. It held more than 25 regional and state-based hearings nationwide.

“The findings actually show that contrary to the [Supreme Court’s] assertion, voting discrimination is still rampant in the states and localities previously covered,” by the provision, said Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which led the commission.

The commission identified 171 successful lawsuits that found discrimination and 113 preclearance denials by the Justice Department of attempts to change voting laws in the past 18 years. (It didn’t track unsuccessful lawsuits.) Almost all of the lawsuits were concentrated in formerly precleared states: Texas had the most by far, with 82 — about half of the successful Section 2 cases since 1995. It was followed by Mississippi, which had 13 cases, Georgia, 9; South Dakota, 7; and Louisiana and Florida, which both had 6.

Of the precleared states, Texas had the most denials to voting-law changes under Section 5, with 22. Despite its smaller size, Louisiana was close behind with 21 denials, followed by South Carolina, which has 16; Mississippi with 15; and Georgia, 14. Together, the five states made up four-fifths of the preclearance denials since 1995, the repot found.

Today’s discrimination is much more subtle than it was in the past, said Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Lawyers’ Committee’s Voting Rights Project. “We need to look at what we call second-generation barriers, how laws have a negative impact on minorities’ ability to vote, and what that means,” she said.

The commission cited measures like photo-ID laws or proof-of-citizenship requirements, redrawing districts to dilute minority votes, and reducing early-voting hours as examples of potentially discriminatory policies. In some cases, laws mandating additional documentation require voters to pay to obtain copies of identity documents, which for the poor or elderly could become a barrier to vote. Limiting voting hours could also burden voters who aren’t able to take time off from work to get to the polls.

The impact depends in part how the laws are applied. A court recently struck down Pennsylvania’s voter-ID law, for example, ruling it would present an undue barrier to some voters. But a court upheld a similar law in Wisconsin. And a court ultimately approved a South Carolina voter-ID law after state officials said that voters unable to obtain the photo ID could use their non-photo voter registration card instead.

The commission also examined who these laws would have affected. Nearly 90 percent of voting changes blocked in precleared states in the past two decades would have had a discriminatory impact on African-Americans, the commission found. Increasingly, laws intended to discriminate against black voters have been used against Latinos as well, the report said.

Most of the lawsuits filed on behalf of Latino voters during the past 20 years were related to redistricting to dilute their voting power, the commission found. As recently as 2011 in Texas, for example, a court found that lawmakers drew new districts that would “look Hispanic, but perform for Anglos.”

Asian Americans are smaller in number in the formerly precleared states, but the commission did report 10 lawsuits or settlements related to providing voting materials or assistance in Asian languages, as required by law.

Native Americans comprise less than 1 percent of the U.S. population today, but make up large populations in some southern and western states, where the commission found 18 lawsuits against efforts at vote dilution.

The report also considered forms of discrimination that are much harder to measure, such as intimidation. In 2003, for example, a lawsuit was filed challenging polling places in Monterey County, Calif., that had been moved away from predominantly Latino communities. Some Latino voters would have had to cast their ballots at the Sheriff’s Posse Club House, a hunting club in a mostly white neighborhood.

In 2012 in North Carolina, the State Board of Elections reported voters being told they could vote by phone, or that they would be prohibited from voting if they had an outstanding traffic ticket. In some cases, the board said that campaign and party supporters breached the buffer zone at some polling places to approach voters, sometimes using profane language.

The commission plans to release a second report on laws passed since Shelby that impose new restrictions on voting in the coming months.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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