Fifty years ago today the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted. For the first time there would be meaningful enforcement of the 15th Amendment, which provides “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Section 5 of the Act identified states and counties, mostly in the South, with a history of denying such rights and required those jurisdictions to obtain federal approval before changing any registration or voting procedure. No longer was enforcement limited to filing individual cases against states accused of voting rights discrimination against African-Americans.
This had a dramatic effect on voting patterns in the named jurisdictions. By 2005, minorities registered to vote and cast ballots at levels surpassing those of white voters; African-American office holders increased by 1,000 percent.
In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the Supreme Court found the designated jurisdictions no longer have discriminatory voting tests and held that discriminatory practices of 40 years ago cannot be the basis for Section 5 actions today. In the two years since the decision, more than 20 states have introduced and some have passed restrictive registration and voting measures, including the requirement of a state-issued photo ID, no same day registration, short early-voting periods and other similar provisions.
The restrictive effects of these laws fall primarily on ethnic minorities, the poor and the elderly, a majority of whom traditionally vote Democratic. Not surprisingly, most of the states now imposing voting restrictions are controlled by Republican legislatures and executive officers.
These states claim the new registration and voting procedures are necessary to prevent voter fraud, but reports of such wrongdoing are grossly exaggerated. Professor Justin Levitt at Loyola University Law School found only 31 incidents of voter impersonation out of 1 billion votes cast in municipal elections between 2000 and 2014. At New York University Law School, the Brennan Center for Justice’s ongoing examination of claimed voter fraud revealed “voter fraud is very rare, voter impersonation is nearly non-existent….”
The fact is, the measures being enacted do not cure the kinds of voter irregularities that do exist, such as coercion, buying votes and the worst of all threats to representative government: gerrymandering and unlimited campaign contributions.
Restricting registration requirements and early voting is justified as necessary to reduce the costs of administering electoral processes. But these functions are normally performed by permanent employees on an ongoing basis or by volunteers on election day, so any savings would be minimal. And since when do we put a cost test on promoting and facilitating voting, the most fundamental exercise of a democratic and representative government?
In the Shelby County case, Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion stated “…voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that.” It also virtually invited Congress to amend the Voting Rights Act by adopting a new formula for determining when a state is engaging in a pattern of discriminatory voting practices; if it is, it again would be subject to the strict requirements of Section 5.
Providing free and easy access to the ballot box is a solemn duty of government. Congress should act now to ensure all states comply with that responsibility.
Bo Statham is a retired lawyer, congressional aide and businessman. He lives in Gardnerville and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.