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Gutting of Voting Rights Act allowed multiple states to impede minority votes

By ERIC MOUNT

Guest columnist

On the Friday before the election, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights released a report announcing that voting rights protections had been gutted by the closing of 868 polling places in states with records of voting discrimination.  These states got leeway to make such moves without getting federal approval once required by the Voting Rights Act. That’s because Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was rendered inoperable by the U. S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County vs Holder (June 2013).  In the judgment of the court, states with histories of discrimination no longer needed clearance to change voting regulations because discrimination was a thing of the past in those states.  Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “things have changed dramatically in the South” during the 40 years when “the tests and devices that formerly blocked ballot access have been forbidden nationwide.”  (Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, 3,000 discriminatory voting changes had been blocked between 1965 and 2013.)  

From the findings of the Leadership Conference report, Roberts spoke too soon.  The report acknowledges that there can be justifiable reasons to reduce polling places (economic efficiency, for example); and consolidation can be done equitably.  However, critical scrutiny of many of the reductions reveals institutional or systemic racial discrimination.  Since there is now “no process to ensure that the reductions are disclosed to the public, that they are conducted with the input of impacted communities, and that they do not discriminate against people of color,” many of the changes have placed undue burdens on minorities. For example, minorities are less likely to have access to public transportation or personal vehicles to reach more distant polling places.

Let’s look at specific reduction statistics that signal discrimination.  In North Carolina, Pasquotank and Cleveland Counties have led in reductions of polling places despite significant opposition from minority communities and advocates. 

Both have records of past discrimination.  In early voting, there was a 19-percent drop in black turnout in Cleveland County. In Charlotte (Mecklenburg County), there was a 16-percent decrease, and there were four-hour lines to vote.

On the first day of early voting, the county offered 22 locations in 2012. They only offered 10 this time, though they did offer more the next week.

Guilford County cut the number of polling places during the first week of early voting from 16 to one.  Shelby County — which is 40 percent African-American — saw a reduction of polling places from five to two. During the first week of early voting, black turnout decreased most in counties that had only one polling site.  

For many years, African-Americans had disproportionately used the first seven days for early voting. An attempt was made to cut the first week from early voting statewide, but a federal court overturned it.

The next move was to slash hours. A total of 17 counties cut early voting hours. Overall, the state offered more early voting hours than in 2012, but three counties eliminated Sunday options and evening hours were often cut. The reductions sometimes targeted locations with high Democratic turnout like college campuses and neighborhoods with large numbers of African-American voters. The State Board of Elections blocked many attempts at suppression but by no means all.

Texas is another glaring case in point.  Since the Shelby County v. Holder decision, about half of the counties in the Leadership Conference sample have closed polling places — 403 to be exact. The State’s voter I.D. law has also become a leading example of discrimination.

Medina County, in heavily Republican southern Texas, closed the only polling place in Natalia. It so happened that Natalia is 75% Latino and is in the only Democratic leaning part of the county. In Louisiana, 61 percent of the parishes closed 101 polling places, and Mississippi has 44 fewer since the Supreme Court decision and the elimination of the Voting Rights Act.

And then there is Arizona.  Nearly half of the counties that would previously have had to get changes federally approved have cut polling places. Maricopa County (home of Phoenix) is the largest county in the state, and it has reduced polling places by 70 percent — from 200 to 60 — since 2012, leaving one for every 21,000 voters.

Tucson’s Pima County — the second largest in the state — dropped from 280 to 218.  The county is 35 percent Latino and leans Democratic. The biggest closer in the nation is Cochise County on the Mexican border.  It is 30 percent Latino and has dropped from 49 polling places to 18 serving 130,000 voters.  Five hour waits have been reported.  Almost every county has been affected in the drop to 212 fewer polling places in the state.

There can be legitimate reasons for closing polling places: budgetary constraints, inability to comply with stipulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and shifts to “voting centers” (which in some locations in Arizona and Texas have given voters more flexibility about where they vote).  However, when one looks at the big picture in states with histories of voting rights discrimination, it is apparent that those in power are still finding ways to discriminate against minorities. 

As is the case with gerrymandering districts, trying to protect my party’s candidates and make it difficult for yours is a familiar partisan ploy.  There continue to be battles to be fought to counter egregious inequities that result from some redistricting, but the injustice that is diagnosed by the report of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is systemic racism.  Shuttering polling places is not the only way in which suppression of African-American and Latino votes still takes place, but the recent report makes a strong case that this form of systemic discrimination has mushroomed.  

The new Congress will have two pieces of pending legislation before it that would restore the Voting Rights Act, requiring transparency and notice of such voting changes as closure of polling places.  We should be poised to voice support of such legislation, but we must realize that the Congress has yet to advance either of those pending bills.  The new makeup of both houses does not promise a better result.

The discrimination highlighted in the Leadership Conference report should not go overlooked and unopposed if we are serious about addressing racism in all of its forms.