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Voting Rights: The Real (and Continuing) Battle Against Racism

While the racist harangues of Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling have been consuming air time and newsprint,in the form of discrimination against African-American voters remains on the rise in states dominated by Republican governors and legislators.
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While the racist harangues of Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling have been consuming air time and newsprint, institutional racism in the form of discrimination against African-American voters remains on the rise in states dominated by Republican governors and legislators.

In the '60s the entire power structure in the Deep South -- from the state house down to each county sheriff -- collaborated to prevent African Americans from voting, beating and sometimes killing those who tried to exercise our most basic right of citizenship.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed poll taxes, literacy tests and other tactics that had been used to prevent African Americans from registering to vote. It also gave the federal government the power to enforce the VRA.

But in June of last year, by a vote of five to four, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the VRA, which had required states with a history of racial discrimination to get preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) before changing their voting laws. Without the preclearance provision, the DOJ can no longer prevent a biased law from going into operation; it must react case by case.

The Supreme Court's decision opened the floodgates for Republican politicians to press for legislation designed to make it more difficult for African Americans to vote.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, now running to become governor, is one of many GOP officeholders pushing for more stringent voter-ID laws, ostensibly to prevent in-person voter fraud. Yet such fraud is extremely rare.

An NBC News21 investigative team sent requests to voting officials in all 50 states "asking for every case of fraudulent activity including registration fraud, absentee ballot fraud, vote buying, false election counts, campaign fraud, casting an ineligible vote, voting twice, voter impersonation fraud and intimidation." The investigators reviewed the data and found just "10 cases of voter impersonation. With 146 million registered voters in the United States during that time [2000-2012], those 10 cases represent one out of about every 15 million prospective voters."

In reviewing legislation over the past year, the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law reported:

Since the beginning of 2013, and as of December 18, 2013, restrictive voting bills have been introduced in more than half the states:
• At least 92 restrictive bills were introduced in 33 states.
• Of those, 13 restrictive bills are still pending in 5 states.
• Of those, 5 restrictive bills are currently active in 2 states, in that there has been legislative activity beyond introduction and referral to committee (such as hearings, committee activity, or votes).
• 8 states have already passed 9 restrictive bills this session.

All these bills have a single purpose: to make it more difficult for African Americans and other minorities to register to vote. Some would require voter IDs, yet 19 states, which comprise about 46 percent of our population, have no such requirements. Other provisions would end same-day registration or greatly limit early voting. According to the Brennan Center, the net impact of these restrictions could reduce the number of voters by as much as 5 million.

The Justice Department has filed suits against North Carolina and Texas to prohibit those states from using recently enacted laws to discriminate against voters of color. North Carolina's House Bill 589, which became law in August of last year, would require a photo ID, end same-day voter registration, and eliminate the first week of early voting in the 2014 elections.

According to the Justice Department, these changes:

will have a discriminatory impact on minority voters, who disproportionately have relied on the first seven days of early voting, the same-day registration process and past practices regarding the counting of certain provisional ballots in order to participate in the elections process. In addition, the State Board of Elections released a report earlier this year showing that African-Americans disproportionately lacked photo identification cards issued by the state's Department of Motor Vehicles. Despite knowledge of this report, the legislature adopted a strict photo identification requirement that lacks the types of protections for voters without identification that are common in other states that require voter identification. Minority voters will disproportionately face obstacles and barriers to obtaining certain permitted photo identification cards that are now required to vote, and the State has failed to provide adequate protections to ensure that these voters will not be disenfranchised by the new law.

Last year progressive groups in North Carolina began organizing weekly protests that became known as "Moral Mondays" to draw public attention to the state's jarring rightward turn, not only on voting rights but on environmental regulations and taxation policies. Polls suggest that these and other efforts are galvanizing support among Democrats.

But the true test will come with the elections in November. If voters fail to register and vote against those who would resurrect the foul carcass of Jim Crow, Republicans will continue their efforts to turn back the clock.

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