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Analysis

How to Fight Voter Suppression Nationwide

Congress has the chance to restore crucial voting rights protections before the 2020 election.

December 9, 2019

This was origin­ally published by the Guard­ian.

On Friday the House of Repres­ent­at­ives showed the coun­try that it will not toler­ate racial discrim­in­a­tion at the polls. It passed the Voting Rights Advance­ment Act, a bill that would restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act to its full strength. Our coun­try needs that reform and others to make the 2020 elec­tion free and fair for all.

Since its found­ing, Amer­ica has moved slowly towards grant­ing suffrage to more and more Amer­ic­ans, bring­ing more people into the elect­oral process. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been instru­mental to that progress. But in 2013 the Supreme Court dramat­ic­ally weakened that law.

In Shelby County v. Holder, the court disabled the act’s provi­sion that required states and local­it­ies with histor­ies of racial discrim­in­a­tion in voting to “pre-clear” new voting regu­la­tions.

The pre-clear­ance system had allowed federal author­it­ies to vet proposed voting rules for racial discrim­in­a­tion before they could cause injury. From 1965 right up until the Shelby decision, this safe­guard blocked many restric­tions that would have made it more diffi­cult for Black and brown people to parti­cip­ate and vote.

Start­ing around 2010, states across the coun­try had already intro­duced legis­la­tion that would put unne­ces­sary barri­ers in front of the ballot box, partic­u­larly for voters of color. Some states with early voting reduced the number of days of advance access to the polls. Others required forms of iden­ti­fic­a­tion to vote that lawmakers knew many Amer­ic­ans did not have. States like Tennessee also burdened community groups that help register voters with unne­ces­sary regu­la­tions and restric­tions.

This only got worse after Shelby, when several of the states once held in check by pre-clear­ance imme­di­ately enacted restric­tions on voting that would have been, or had been, blocked by the federal govern­ment.

Now, with a weakened Voting Rights Act, lawyers have had to combat voter suppres­sion using time-consum­ing and expens­ive meth­ods, and many voters have had to vote under the prob­lem­atic law because elec­tions happen faster than court resol­u­tions.

Next year, Amer­ic­ans will choose their pres­id­ent, a person whose nomin­a­tions to the Supreme Court will have an impact on voting rights and other import­ant matters nation­wide. Voters will also elect 11 governors, 7 states’ secret­ar­ies of state, and other offi­cials who set and imple­ment policies that impact our every­day life, includ­ing state voting rules. With loom­ing uncer­tainty, we do not want to go into 2020 without all the avail­able protec­tions against voter suppres­sion in place.

Congress has the first respons­ib­il­ity: pass a restored Voting Rights Act, now with the Senate. But that is not enough. Our legis­lat­ors should also provide adequate fund­ing to states and local­it­ies to admin­is­ter their elec­tions.

And others need to join the effort to protect the vote. Governors and secret­ar­ies of state need to make sure that the tech­no­logy Amer­ic­ans use to vote is secure, and that Amer­ic­ans have fair polling place resources — voting loca­tions, machines and poll work­ers when they vote. Voters need to get them­selves and their family, friends, and neigh­bors registered; check to ensure their regis­tra­tion status stays active; and make sure that every­one (includ­ing them­selves) can get to the polls and vote.

Elec­tions are when we all get to have our say about the direc­tion the coun­try is going in. Today might be our first step in ensur­ing they remain demo­cratic.