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Race and Voting Rights in 2016

Andy Nash

For decades, people have worked on the state and federal level to make it easier for citizens (the electorate) to vote. They have passed laws that enable people to register more easily, vote at more convenient times, and vote online from home. These efforts strengthen our democracy because they allow more voters to be involved in choosing government representatives and making decisions.

But that trend shifted in 2010, when state lawmakers across the U.S. began introducing hundreds of bills to restrict voting. These laws will be in effect for the 2016 election. They include strict photo ID requirements, significant reductions to early voting, and limits on same-day registration. Although each state’s laws are different, they all have something in common—a disproportionate impact on communities of color and the poor. According to studies at UMass and the Brennan Center for Justice, the more a state saw increases in minority and low-income voter turnout in the 2008 election, the more likely it was to push laws cutting back on voting rights. Let’s examine how.

Voter ID Laws

Voter identification laws require citizens to present specific forms of ID in order to vote. Nationally, 11% of Americans do not have the current photo IDs required under the stricter laws, including 25% of African Americans, 20% of people 18-29, and 18% of seniors.1

Laws that require photo ID at the polls vary, but the strictest laws limit the list of acceptable IDs to ones that many poor people do not have. Even when the state offers a free photo ID, those voters may not have the necessary documents, such as a birth certificate, to obtain one. For example, in Wisconsin, Alberta Currie was born at home and doesn’t have a birth certificate. Another voter Sammie Louise Bates, faced with the choice of paying $42 for a birth certificate or buying food, chose food because “we couldn’t eat the birth certificate.”2

Also, in rural communities with almost no public transportation, traveling to get the needed documents is extremely difficult. This year, Alabama is planning to close 31 driver’s license offices (where most people get their IDs), including the offices in every county where black people make up more than 75% of the registered voters. This makes it much harder for those citizens to obtain an ID and will certainly suppress the black vote.

Fewer Opportunities to Vote Early

Early voting is important for people who can’t easily get to the polls on voting day (people who have to work, people without reliable transportation, etc.). In the last two presidential elections, a full one-third of Americans voted early, and a disproportionate number of them were black.3 The new laws reduce the number of days for early voting and often the weekend and evening hours that are commonly used by working people or church groups that organize Sunday voting drives.

Voter Registration Restrictions

In ten states, it has gotten harder for citizens to register or stay registered if they move. In North Carolina, for example, voters can no longer register the same day that they vote. Why does this matter? Because the voting lists have many errors! In the past, if your name did not appear on the list of registered voters when you came to vote, you could just register again right there. Same-day registration made voting easier for everyone by allowing voters to do everything in one trip.

Furthermore, Florida, Iowa, and South Dakota all made it harder for Americans with criminal convictions to have their voting rights restored. Overall, 7.7 percent of African Americans have lost their right compared to 1.8 percent of whites.

Fighting Back Against Voter Restrictions

Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and The Sentencing Project, as well as black churches and other community organizations are working to restore voting rights. They are experiencing some success. In March, Oregon adopted legislation that will  automatically register eligible residents when they renew their driver’s license. Also this year, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear issued an executive order that will restore the right to vote for 170,000 Kentuckians with past convictions for non-violent crimes. Until that order, Kentucky was one of three states (along with Florida and Iowa) that completely barred persons with past felony convictions from ever voting.

Despite these efforts, not all Americans have the same opportunity to cast a ballot. Someone eligible to vote in one state might not be in another. Critics claim that state legislatures revise their voting laws to intentionally make it more difficult for poor people and people of color to vote. We may have come a long way since this country was founded and the Constitution gave only white male property owners the right to vote, but politicians are still devising ways to pick the voters they want rather than the other way around!

Andy Nash is director of the New England Literacy Resource Center.

Sources: 1. <www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/d/download_file_39242.pdf>; 2. < www.advancementproject.org>; 3. <prospect.org/article/22-states-wave-new-voting-restrictionsthreatens-shift-outcomes-tight-races>.

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