As the U.S. Supreme Court rightfully makes way for same-sex marriage across the country, it simultaneously regresses policy on another civil liberty, voting rights.
Voting rights shift in last year
Little media attention has been given to Texas State Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Lawrence Meyers who initiated a lawsuit against the state's new voter ID law. The Texas Tribune reported, "Meyers, who is Catholic, said he started looking into the voter ID law after nuns who belong to orders in his hometown of Fort Worth expressed concern because the law requires photo identification that many of them don't possess." Meyers filed the lawsuit in Dallas County and it argues that the law violates the Texas Constitution in an effort to thwart voter fraud. The suit reads that "the Texas Constitution gives the Texas legislature power solely to 'detect and punish' election fraud when it has already occurred." Although the Texas voter ID law was originally passed in 2011, it was later enacted in 2013 only after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Since the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision to strike down Section 5, a virtual free-for-all has developed in states across the nation to make significant changes to voting policies. Section 5 of the VRA required states with significant voter discrimination histories to be granted pre-clearance from the Department of Justice before making changing to voting regulations. In 2013 the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the social and political climate has progressed over years such that the statute is no longer needed.
In the year since the decision the following states have moved forward with legislation altering the regulation of voting rights policies. In December 2013, the Brennan Center for Justice of New York University School of Law reported the following:
Since then, the Brennan Center reported that between January 1 and June 2014, Ohio and Wisconsin have passed a total of four bills restricting voting rights. The most salient of these bills is the one in each state that reduces the early voting period, Ohio's bill even takes it a step further in purging same day registration.
A similar bill was introduced in North Carolina, which was rejected by a federal appeals court noting that the original court's decision "failed to adequately consider North Carolina's history of voting discrimination." Within a week, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal appeals court's decision "blocking a lower-court ruling that required the state to restore same-day registration and count ballots in the wrong precinct," reports the Wall Street Journal.
While bills restricting voting rights advance across the nation, there is also a great deal of work to restore and progress voter enfranchisement. Judge Lawrence Meyers is not the only person to bring a suit against voting rights changes. Also, on January 16 of this year, Representatives Sensenbrenner and Conyers introduced the Voting Rights Act of 2014 in Congress as an option to right the wrong of the Supreme Court's decision.
The Advancement Project, an advocacy organization dedicating to civil rights, assessed positive and concerning elements in the new bill. For example, the bill would require a notification of the public 180 days prior to an election of any voting changes made. However, the new Section 5 formula may only be applicable to Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana as it only evaluates the last 15 years of voter discrimination.
Read the full text of the Advancement Project's evaluation here.
Why does this matter?
Voting restrictions limit involvement in the political process from very local levels to national elections. However, not many people seem to be troubled that states are granted free reign over voting regulations that in turn affect citizen's involvement in voting for positions in federal office.
Midterm elections may not be as sexy as presidential elections, but they are certainly critical. With midterm elections just around the corner, these voting rights decisions will undoubtedly affect the outcome of election results, as many people will be disenfranchised by their access to photo IDs and early voting.
NPR reported that "those least likely to have a government-issues photo ID fall into one of four categories: the elderly, minorities, the poor and young adults aged 18 to 24." The Brennan Center believes that 18 percent of seniors and 25 percent of African Americans do have have picture IDs. Voter ID laws would make a significant amount of members of these two populations ineligible to vote in elections, thus disenfranchising them. NPR goes on to state some of the challenges with obtaining photo IDs in states with voter ID laws:
- Many states require presentation of birth certificates or social security cards
- The most common form of a government-issued photo ID is a driver's license - many elderly, impoverished people, minorities and college students do not possess these
- Some states issue non-driver photo IDs but many people in rural areas live particularly far from motor vehicle offices - not to mention the long wait times
Where will this lead us?
The 113th sitting Congress has been repeatedly called the least productive Congress in history as it is infamously responsible for such travesties as the government shutdown last year when thousands of federal employees were unable to work and departments were rendered paralyzed; all because Congress was at a stalemate with each other and President Barack Obama.
Let us not forget that House Speaker John Boehner and other members of the House of Representatives have waged a lawsuit against President Obama this year based on Boehner's claim that the president does not abide by the executive powers granted to him in the Constitution. A lawsuit done in vain for media attention and to stir up their political base as they symbolically position themselves even further from the Democratic agenda. While U.S. Senators and Representatives have been playing battleship over what is certainly a quest for power, the citizens who pay their salaries have continually gotten the short end of the stick.
Voting rights restriction policies are just one more pawn in the game of chess played between members of our polarized two-party system in an effort to hoard power and initiate self-interested policies while the U.S. Supreme Court aids the crusade and does little to protect the rights of the people.
Right now, we are certainly headed down a bumpy road.