What’s Good—and Bad—About the New Voting Rights Act

What's Good--and Bad--About the New Voting Rights Act

Among the many calls for justice this past weekend at the massive “Moral March” civil rights rally in Raleigh, N.C., was the call for Congress to pass a bipartisan amendment to the currently disabled Voting Rights Act.

Chief Justice John Roberts called for the new amendment when he decided last summer in Shelby v. Holder that the Section 4(b) criteria for determining which areas needed federal approval—or “preclearance”—of their voting changes was obsolete. Much of North Carolina was covered under that criteria before Shelby, but shortly after the Supreme Court gutted Section 4(b), the state passed an appallingly restrictive elections administration bill that likely wouldn’t have passed muster when subjected to VRA approval. 

The original Section 4(b) criteria helped protect voters in most of the southern former Jim Crow states where racial voting discrimination is most embedded. It was also applied to states such as Alaska, where Alaska Natives have been constant targets for disenfranchisement

The new VRA amendment sets a new formula for addressing racial discrimination at the polls, but It’s not clear what places would be covered if passed. The consensus so far is that fewer jurisdictions would qualify under the new formula, likely meaning fewer voters of color protected. 

Here’s an explainer of the proposed voting rights amendment of 2014:

  • First, it sets a new formula that applies preclearance coverage to any state that has committed five voting rights violations in the past 15 years, or any “political subdivision” (like a county or school board district) that’s had three voting violations over the same time period. A subdivision could also come under preclearance if it has exhibited “persistent and extremely low minority voter turnout.” More broadly, it allows additional states and subdivisions to be bailed into preclearance if they’re found to have intentionally discriminated against people of color or if their laws inadvertently resulted in discrimination. Currently, a bail-in can only happen if intentional discrimination is found.
  • Second, it forces states and subdivisions to publicly post any changes made to voting procedures, like cuts to early voting or the relocation of a polling place, that occur within 180 days of a federal election. The information has to be posted in a “reasonably convenient and accessible format” within 48 hours of the change being made. They must also publicly post data on the polling resources of any voting district, including that district’s voting-age population, and the number of registered voters, available voting machines and poll workers. Finally, any changes made through redistricting must be publicized within 10 days of the change.
  • The third part reinforces the attorney general’s power to send federal election observers to places where election discrimination has been reported.
  • The last part allows for preliminary injunctive relief when voting rights violations seem imminent, meaning parties can sue to have a voting change temporarily blocked until a full trial determines its legitimacy.
  • But it ain’t all good. Here are a few problems:

    • First, none of this applies to voter ID laws. The original amendment stopped Texas from implementing such a law that could have potentially disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of people of color in 2012, but the new one will ensure no such justice.
    • Second, for determining which areas would fall under preclearance, voting rights violations are usually limited to final court judgments. So, if a court finds that a state ran afoul of civil rights voting laws, or the attorney general blocks a law for similar violations, neither of those would count as a voting rights infraction if a court later overturned either of those decisions.

    • Third, since only final judgements count, other ways of legally addressing voting discrimination like settlements and consent decrees would not constitute violations. Also temporary court injunctions, like what civil rights advocates won in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin against voter ID laws, would not count. What may result now is a deluge of new voting rights lawsuits pushed and appealed to the max — at taxpayers’ expense — whereas under the original version, many cases were resolved before they even saw court.
    • Finally, some voting rights cases include multiple counts, like what we’re seeing right now in North Carolina, where civil rights groups are suing over roughly five different parts of the law that reek of discrimination. But if a final ruling finds that only three of those parts are illegal, does each one count as a voting rights violation, or just one since they’re all filed under the same case? The new legislation doesn’t spell this out.
    • Despite its imperfections, the Voting Rights Act does serve as a solid foundation that members of Congress can improve upon when it finally makes it to a vote. By the same token, they can water it down even more. Either way, it’s better than the nothing that currently exists in Sections 4(b) and 5 of our hard-won voting rights law. 

      Those sponsoring the bill include Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Rep. Steve Chabot, a Republican from Ohio, who was recently ranked by National Journal as the most conservative member in the House of Representatives. Three other Republicans have signed on as sponsors of the bill as well, all of them from voting rights-plagued states Alabama, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

      “While we have made great strides as a country, we know that discrimination is still a reality in too many places,” says Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “The need for an effective, modern day Voting Rights Act that responds to 21st century discrimination across the country is vital to our democracy.”

AG Holder Calls for Restoring Voting Rights to Former Felons

AG Holder Calls for Restoring Voting Rights to Former Felons

***UPDATE: 2/11/14 11:25 a.m. Scroll down for Holder’s full remarks on repealing felony disenfranchisement laws.

During Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech this morning at Georgetown University Law Center he announced that people who can’t vote due to past felony convictions should have their voting rights restored. Said Holder:

“It is time to fundamentally rethink laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision,” Holder was to say in prepared remarks. “These restrictions are not only unnecessary and unjust, they are also counterproductive. By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes.”

There are 11 states that bar people with felony convictions from voting upon release from jail, even after they’ve completed probation or parole. Three states — Virginia, Florida and Kentucky — have a permanent felony disenfranchisement ban pending a successful appeal to the governor, but only after a lengthy application process and waiting period. Virginia began relaxing its felony disenfranchisement laws under its former governor Bob McDonnell and is expected to extend even more restoration rights to former felons under current governor Terry McAuliffe. 

Holder made these remarks at an event sponsored by The Leadership Conference Education Fund and the Vera Institute of Justice. It’s billed as a bipartisan event to discuss the ongoing criminal justice reforms that have been springing from the Justice Department and how they can go farther. Also present for the forum are Senators Mike Lee (R-UT), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). Other speakers are participating today from the ACLU and the Heritage Foundation. 

Said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights: “There is undeniable bipartisan momentum for criminal justice reform that updates inhumane sentencing laws and returns people to society with dignity. America is the world’s greatest democracy, yet felon disenfranchisement laws deny almost six million Americans the right to vote. These laws serve no purpose but to make it harder for returning citizens to reintegrate into their communities — to work, seek an education, and participate in our democracy. Successful reintegration and smarter sentencing are the keys to ensuring that our criminal justice system is more fair, more humane, and more fiscally responsible.”

***Below are Holder’s full remarks at the Georgetown Criminal Justice Forum where the Attorney General calls for felony disenfranchisement laws to be repealed:

“I’ve ordered our law enforcement components to reconsider policies that impose overly burdensome collateral consequences on formerly incarcerated individuals without meaningfully improving public safety. …

“Yet formerly incarcerated people continue to face significant obstacles.  They are frequently deprived of opportunities they need to rebuild their lives. And in far too many places, their rights - including the single most basic right of American citizenship, the right to vote - are either abridged or denied. …

“As the Leadership Conference Education Fund articulated very clearly in your recent report, “there is no rational reason to take away someone’s voting rights for life just because they’ve committed a crime, especially after they’ve completed their sentence and made amends.”  On the contrary: there is evidence to suggest that former prisoners whose voting rights are restored are significantly less likely to return to the criminal justice system.  As your report further notes, a study recently conducted by a parole commission in Florida found that, while the overall three-year recidivism rate stood at roughly 33 percent, the rate among those who were re-enfranchised after they’d served their time was just a third of that. …

“And that’s why I believe that, today - starting here and now - it is time for criminal justice leaders to come together to address this issue. It is time to fundamentally rethink laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision. …

“These restrictions are not only unnecessary and unjust, they are also counterproductive.  By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes.  They undermine the reentry process and defy the principles - of accountability and rehabilitation - that guide our criminal justice policies.  And however well-intentioned current advocates of felony disenfranchisement may be - the reality is that these measures are, at best, profoundly outdated.  At worst, these laws, with their disparate impact on minority communities, echo policies enacted during a deeply troubled period in America’s past - a time of post-Civil War discrimination.  And they have their roots in centuries-old conceptions of justice that were too often based on exclusion, animus, and fear. …

“The history of felony disenfranchisement dates to a time when these policies were employed not to improve public safety, but purely as punitive measures intended to stigmatize, shame, and shut out a person who had been found guilty of a crime. …

“Across this country today, an estimated 5.8 million Americans - 5.8 million of our fellow citizens - are prohibited from voting because of current or previous felony convictions.  That’s more than the individual populations of 31 U.S. states.  And although well over a century has passed since post-Reconstruction states used these measures to strip African Americans of their most fundamental rights, the impact of felony disenfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable.

“Throughout America, 2.2 million black citizens - or nearly one in 13 African-American adults - are banned from voting because of these laws.  In three states - Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia - that ratio climbs to one in five.  …

“Fortunately - despite unfortunate steps backward in a few jurisdictions, and thanks to the leadership of policymakers from both parties and criminal justice professionals like you - in recent years we have begun to see a trend in the right direction.  Since 1997, a total of 23 states - including Nebraska, Nevada, Texas, and Washington State - have enacted meaningful reforms.  In Virginia, just last year, former Governor McDonnell adopted a policy that began to automatically restore the voting rights of former prisoners with non-violent felony convictions….

“I applaud those who have already shown leadership in raising awareness and helping to address this issue.  Later today, this conference will hear from Senator Rand Paul, who has been a leader on this matter. His vocal support for restoring voting rights for former inmates shows that this issue need not break down along partisan lines.

“Eleven states continue to restrict voting rights, to varying degrees, even after a person has served his or her prison sentence and is no longer on probation or parole - including the State of Florida, where approximately 10 percent of the entire population is disenfranchised as a result.  In Mississippi, roughly 8 percent of the population cannot vote because of past involvement with the criminal justice system.  In Iowa, action by the governor in 2011 caused the state to move from automatic restoration of rights - following the completion of a criminal sentence - to an arduous process that requires direct intervention by the governor himself in every individual case.  It’s no surprise that, two years after this change - of the 8,000 people who had completed their sentences during that governor’s tenure - voting rights had been restored to fewer than 12. …

“That’s moving backwards - not forward.  It is unwise, it is unjust, and it is not in keeping with our democratic values.  These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed.”

‘Moral March’ in North Carolina Draws Thousands

'Moral March' in North Carolina Draws Thousands

The tens of thousands of people who descended upon Raleigh, N.C., for the “Moral March” led by civil rights activist Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II surely touched some hearts. The scene of a multi-racial, intergenerational sea of marchers representing every major issue facing Americans from labor to voting rights to immigrant justice invoked memories of the historic civil rights marches of the 1960s 

“We are black, white, Latino, Native American,” said Barber, president of the NC NAACP and convener of HKonJ. “We are Democrat, Republican, independent. We are people of all faiths, and people not of faith, but who believe in a moral universe. We are natives and immigrants, business leaders and workers and unemployed, doctors and the uninsured, gay and straight, students and parents and retirees. We stand here—a quilt of many colors, faiths, and creeds.”

But the march also touched some nerves, particularly those of the more conservative brand who’ve been backing the hard right turn North Carolina took last year when lawmakers rolled back voting rights, cut aid to those of low income and shifted millions of dollars from public schools to private schools. Seeing all of the signs from marchers pushing for marriage equality and reproductive justice, the conservative North Carolina Values Coaltion said in a statement:

“The so-called ‘moral march on Raleigh’ is anything but moral. It is spearheaded by groups that support abortion and homosexual marriage. They are unhappy because the Governor and the General Assembly have enacted policies in line with mainstream North Carolinians that promote and protect marriage between one man and one woman as God created it, ban sex-selective abortion, protect the conscience rights of pro-life health care workers, require abortion facilities to meet basic medical safety standards, and prevent taxpayer-funded abortions.”

Here’s what the Moral Marchers had to say:

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Florida State House Candidate Wants Obama Lynched

Florida State House Candidate Wants Obama Lynched

This can’t be life: An African-American candidate for Florida state House of Representatives is on Twitter and Facebook calling for President Barack Obama’s death. Joshua Black, who’s running as a Republican for the 68th legislative district, Tweeted on Martin Luther King Day that Obama should be arrested and then “hang him high.”

Black doubled-down on this statement on his Facebook page, saying that America should “execute” Obama, for drone strikes overseas and the pursuit of people like Edward Snowden who exposed American government secrets. Last I checked, threatening the life of a U.S. President is a felony, and it looks like Black has already had to answer to the Secret Service for his recklessness. In Florida, a felony conviction not only bars you from voting in the state, but also from running for public office. This is one hell of a campaign strategy. 

What’s sadder are the dozens of “Likes,” retweets and people who’ve commented in agreement. 

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