A good summer for voting rights, but there’s more work to do

Fighting for voting rights is a fundamental progressive value and central to CREDO’s advocacy. That’s why we’ve included organizations such as Project Vote, the Voter Participation Center, and the Brennan Center for Justice in our monthly donations elections this year, with CREDO activists voting to contribute a total of $244,000 so far.

Voting rights news this summer has been mostly positive. Thanks to aggressive action in courtrooms around the country, a variety of voting restrictions have been struck down. But we still have a lot of work to do, because in far too many states restrictions on people’s right to vote still exist.

We can start by ending the Republican Senate’s unprecedented obstruction of Merrick Garland’s nomination. This new wave of voting restrictions began when the Supreme Court rolled back the protections of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, in the disastrous Shelby County v. Holder decision. Following that decision, conservatives sought a variety of ways to undermine our democracy. In North Carolina the state legislature went right to work, quickly passing one of the most draconian disenfranchisement bills in the country.

The law included burdensome ID requirements, made it more difficult for people to register, and limited early voting. Lawmakers even requested data on which voting and registration mechanisms of North Carolina law minority voters were most likely to take advantage of, and specifically sought to eliminate them.

During the last week in August the Supreme Court denied a request by North Carolina’s Governor to reinstate the voter suppression law. According to USA Today, “As a result of the Supreme Court action, early voting in this year’s presidential election will extend for 17 days and voters will not have to present photo identification at their assigned precincts.”

North Carolina wasn’t alone. In state after state, citizens, in particular African Americans and Latinx, faced more cumbersome barriers at the polling place.

But this summer, the tide has begun to turn. In courtroom after courtroom, judges said “no” to these horrific laws. In four states, courts either struck down or severely limited the scope of voter ID laws.

A federal appeals court struck down North Carolina’s abysmal attempt to restrict voting rights, writing that the law “target[ed] African Americans with almost surgical precision,” and “impose[d] cures for problems that did not exist.” The state is now appealing this decision to the Supreme Court.

In Wisconsin a judge struck down “limits on early voting, a requirement that people must live in a ward for 28 days before voting, a prohibition on expired student IDs and a ban on emailing absentee ballots to voters. The judge also required that anyone with difficulty getting an ID must be granted a voting ID within 30 days,” reported the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Judge James Peterson wrote in his decision, “The Wisconsin experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities. To put it bluntly, Wisconsin’s strict version of voter ID law is a cure worse than the disease.”

A judge in Kansas ruled that citizens “must be allowed to vote in state and local elections, even if they didn’t show proof of citizenship when they registered,” reported NPR.

North Dakota’s photo ID law was struck down, with the judge writing, “The public interest in protecting the most cherished right to vote for thousands of Native Americans who currently lack a qualifying ID and cannot obtain one, outweighs the purported interest and arguments of the State.” U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland continued, “No eligible voter, regardless of their station in life, should be denied the opportunity to vote.”

These are all critical cases that will allow more people to vote. Nevertheless, we must redouble our efforts to expand voting rights. That’s why CREDO activists are currently engaged in a number of critical campaigns to fight for voting rights.

One of the most urgent actions we need Congress to take is to restore the Voting Rights Act. This would only require a simple fix, but Republicans have refused to allow any votes on either of the currently pending bills that would protect Americans from discriminatory voter suppression laws. Nearly 140,000 CREDO activists have signed a petition demanding a vote on one of the two bills, the Voting Rights Amendment Act, in the House of Representatives.

Beyond restoring the Voting Right Act there is much more we need to do to expand and defend the right to vote. Recently Donald Trump laid the groundwork for massive voter intimidation and suppression in November’s election. After Trump warned against “cheating” in “certain parts of the state” in a recent speech in Pennsylvania, the Trump campaign rolled out a new effort to recruit “Trump Election Observers” to “Stop Crooked Hillary from Rigging this Election.” Nearly 50,000 CREDO activists have already signed a petition demanding that the Department of Justice investigate the Trump campaign’s “Trump Election Observers” program and crack down on any attempt to intimidate or suppress voters this fall. The Department of Justice is our last line of defense to stop the Trump campaign’s voter intimidation effort.

There are also systematic reforms that need to be made to our electoral process. For example, prison gerrymandering reduces the voice of minorities in Congress. The current system counts incarcerated people as “residents” of the place they happen to be on Census Day. That means instead of being counted as residents of their home communities, they are counted as residents of the place where they are imprisoned.

Treating incarcerated people as “residents” of prisons is outdated, inaccurate, and unfair. When government officials use census data with these padded population numbers, they’re shifting representation – and therefore shifting political influence – from home communities to prison communities. This primarily harms communities of color, particularly.

African-American and Latinx communities that bear the brunt of disproportionate incarceration rates and a broken criminal justice system. Almost 50,000 CREDO activists have signed a petition to the Census Bureau demanding it end this practice.

We can also bring millions of new voters to the polls by passing the Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2016. This bill would create a pathway to voting for up to 50 million new voters, dramatically increasing participation and registration rates while reducing errors and costs – but it won’t gain traction in Congress without grassroots support. Nearly 125,000 CREDO activists have signed a petition supporting this vital legislation.

Voting is a fundamental right. And while we are elated at recent court victories, our work won’t stop until every American citizen can go to the ballot box.