The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
As I have discussed in previous blog posts, 2016 marks the first presidential election year since the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the 2013 case, Shelby County v. Holder. In the aftermath of that controversial decision, states and local jurisdictions that had been previously required to seek preclearance from the federal government were suddenly able to make changes at will. And, in the three years since, state governments have passed a series of laws aimed at severely restricting the right to vote, whether by requiring strict forms of photo identification at the polls, shortening early voting or by some other mechanism.
Now that many states have held their presidential primaries, we are able to take a step back and see just what effects Shelby and the resulting restrictive voting laws have had. As predicted, there is clear and compelling evidence that the right to vote is being diminished across the United States. Below are just two examples of this growing pattern:
Arizona, one of the states that had been subject to preclearance prior to the Shelby decision, held its primary election on March 22. In Maricopa County (Phoenix), polls were scheduled to close at 7:00 PM. But, when some voters arrived at their polling places, they found lines hundreds-of-people long. Ultimately, some of these voters did not cast their ballots until after midnight the next morning. The Arizona Republic published an editorial calling the hours-long wait experienced by many voters “shameful” and noting that it made many feel that they had been disenfranchised.
These voting troubles are at least in part explained by that fact that, over the past four years, Maricopa County has closed around 70 percent of its polling places in an effort to cut costs and save money. As Ari Berman of The Nation points out, such a dramatic change in voting practice in a county with a large minority population would likely not have been authorized by the federal government had Arizona still been required to seek preclearance.
Immediately following the Supreme Court’s decision to gut the Voting Rights Act in 2013, North Carolina enacted H.B. 589, an election overhaul bill that created a strict voter ID requirement to vote, shortened early voting, eliminated same-day registration and phased out early registration programs for high school students. Despite several ongoing lawsuits, the 2016 election cycle is the first in which the full provisions of H.B. 589 are in effect in North Carolina.
During the ten days of early voting, nearly 900 voters were forced to cast provisional ballots because they did not arrive at the polls with an acceptable form of photo identification. Those voters who had simply left their ID at home were required to make an additional trip to the local board of elections office to certify their vote. But voters who lacked any form of photo ID, some 400 of the 900 early voters casting provisional ballots, had to prove a “reasonable impediment” to obtaining a photo ID or else risk having their votes voided.
The new requirement that voters cast a provisional ballot if they lack an accepted form of photo ID caused problems beyond early voting as well. In Wake County, 7,940 provisional ballots were cast. At least several hundred of those ballots were ultimately not counted because the voters had failed to list a proper reasonable impediment.
While it is still early in the 2016 election season, it is clear that the Supreme Court’s decision to nullify the preclearance process has had a significant impact on the ability of American citizens to participate in our democracy. Voting should not be a challenge, but complicated and stringent new laws have made it just that.
As Reform Jews, guided by the teaching that “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 55a), we must continue to speak out against restrictive voting practices that prevent Americans from participating in their democracy. One way to do so is to organize programs in your community to ensure that all eligible voters are registered, informed about the elections and able to get to the polls. For more information about holding these sorts of programs, check out the RAC’s Get Out the Vote Guide.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Tom Arthur