Election 2016

Civil Rights Pioneer: America's Discriminatory Election Landscape Worst in 50 Years

The targets are Americans who have struggled the most for the right to vote.

Photo Credit: https://twitter.com/Wade4Justice

(Editor's note: The following remarks were made at a Washington, D.C. press conference on Tuesday by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which runs a national election protection hotline and legal aid service.)

Today, and for the past several weeks during early voting, we have been witnessing the most unfair, confusing and discriminatory election landscape in almost 50 years. And it’s a disgrace to our citizens, to our nation, and to our standing in the world as a beacon of democracy. Moreover, it comes as no surprise—no surprise whatsoever.

This is the predictable outcome in the first major election since the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder last year, when a bare majority chose to gut critical pieces of the Voting Rights Act. This rendered inoperable the pre-clearance system [of the Justice Department approving or blocking changes in state laws] that had worked for half a century to protect voters from discrimination before it could take effect.

As Justice Ginsburg said in her dissent in Shelby, it made as much sense as throwing away your umbrella in a rain storm simply because you’re not getting wet. Well, the storm is now raging, with powerful microbursts that are denying to U.S. citizens their inalienable right to participate in our demcracy.

And it didn’t have to be this way. The Court invited Congress to update the Voting Rights Act and a bipartisan bill was introduced all the way back to January of this year, to ensure voters would be protected from discrimination when they went to the polls today. Sadly, Congress failed to act, with the House Republican leadership refusing to hold even a single hearing on one of the most fundamental rights in our country, the right to vote.

Voting should make us truly equal, whether we’re rich or poor, young or old, famous or unknown, male or female, gay or straight—white, Black, Asian or Latino. But in state after state we have seen politicans manipulating the election rules to make it harder for people—primarily people of color, the poor and students—to register and to vote. In fact, since the Supreme Court’s disastrous decision, 14 different states made changes to their voting laws and we don’t even know how many counties and small towns did as well.

Now in Texas, two separate federal court rulings have found that the state’s new ID law was enacted with the purpose of discriminating against minority voters, and is unconstitutional. Yet the Supreme Court is allowing the state to enforce that law, which says an ID to carry a concealed weapon allows you into the voting booth, but a student ID issued from a state university does not.

In Georgia, more than 40,000 voter registrations submitted by the state’s NAACP chapter and the New Georgia Project have not been processed, and the ability of these voters to have their voices heard has been thrown into limbo.   

In North Carolina, citizens will no longer have same-day registration or extended early voting. And in Ohio, politicans cut a week of early voting, the week that allowed voters to register and cast a vote on the same day.

The common theme in all of these measures is that they take aim at the voting procedures that are most used by those that have struggled the most in our history for the right to vote. And while I urge voters to get out today and manage, through sheer will and determination to overcome these barriers, the message that politicans are sending with these laws are clear: we don’t want you to have a voice in this democracy.

So no matter which candidate and political party comes out on top in the Senate, the House and races for governor, and all the down-ballot races that will be decided today, the right to vote and our democracy is taking a brutal and totally unacceptable beating.

Today, the real losers in this election will be the American voter. Now, we cannot allow this election, with its discriminatory voting laws and mass confusion, to become the new normal. That’s why we must demand that Congress do its sworn duty to restore the Voting Rights Act. The integrity of American democracy demands nothing less.   

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Wade Henderson is president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.