The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
April was a busy month in the struggle to protect voting rights, with several significant advancements and setbacks in guaranteeing equal and easy access to the ballot across the country. Here are a just a few of the most important voting and elections developments from the past month.
In late April, a federal judge issued a sweeping, 485-page ruling on a series of lawsuits involving controversial changes to North Carolina's voting regulations. The changes reduced early voting, eliminated pre-registration for high school students, and required that voters show one of several forms of photo identification before voting. The civil rights community had challenged the state's claim that the changes were intended to reduce voter fraud, and contended that they would in reality only suppress access to the ballot for racial and ethnic minorities, low-income people, students and the elderly. The judge ultimately sided with the state government, finding that North Carolina had offered adequate justification for the changes.
Although the plaintiffs have already promised to appeal the case, the North Carolina decision is seen as a potentially indicative of how other judges across the country might rule on the constitutionality of voter ID laws. The case also demonstrates the damage wrought by the Supreme Court with its 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. After the Court struck down the preclearance formula in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, states with a long history of voter disenfranchisement were suddenly able to change their voting laws without oversight from the federal government. It was in the immediate aftermath of the Shelby decision that North Carolina enacted its election changes, which likely would not have received preclearance under the old model.
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe made history with the announcement on April 22 that he would issue an executive order restoring voting rights to all individuals who had received a felony conviction and had served their term of incarceration and supervised release (probation and parole). As a result, around 200,000 returning citizens, perhaps the largest number of people ever re-enfranchised in a single government action, will now be able to participate in the democratic process. Prior to Governor McAuliffe's executive order, Virginia had been one of only a small number of states that had indefinitely barred voting rights for people convicted of felonies.
Republican lawmakers in Virginia have largely decried the move as partisan politicking designed to increase the turnout of Democratic voters in the November election, and have pledged to challenge the executive action in court.
West Virginia and Vermont
West Virginia and Vermont became the third and fourth states, respectively, to approve automatic voter registration systems in April. These systems transform the election process by ensuring that all eligible citizens who interact with certain government institutions (the DMV, etc.) are automatically registered to vote, unless they choose to opt out of registration. In West Virginia, the new law was passed with strong bipartisan support and will go into effect in 2017. Vermont's automatic voter registration system will also begin after the 2016 election, and is expected to register between 30,000 and 50,000 additional citizens.
These recent events make clear that, ahead of the 2016 election, voting laws remain in a state of often heated disagreement and flux across the country. The Jewish tradition communicates a strong ethical commitment to political participation, demanding both of us and of our elected officials that you "not separate yourself from the community" (Pirke Avot 2:5). As Reform Jews, we recognize that our responsibility to remain engaged in the political system extends to ensuring that all eligible citizens are provided an equal opportunity to participate in our democracy.
As we head into the first presidential election without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act, it is critically important that we call on Congress to renew its commitment to protecting the right to vote for all American citizens. Urge Congress to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act.
Image courtesy of Flickr/Michael Fleshman