The presidential election is tomorrow — a momentous day sure to be filled with excitement and anxiety across the political spectrum. Tomorrow might be the day that the United States elects its first female president. Though this question will remain unanswered until Tuesday night, there is one thing we know that is regrettably certain; the 2016 presidential election will be the first in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. As gathered evidence reveals that the consequences of this new reality are particularly burdensome for racial minorities, the time to restore the Voting Rights Act is now.
In a 2013 decision known as Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act that required states to submit a request for “pre-clearance” before any changes to voting practices could be made. The federal government was responsible for determining whether these changes comported with election laws. This “pre-clearance” provision was designed to catch discriminatory practices before elections occurred. In the absence of this safeguard, several states have instituted a number of potentially discriminatory practices, including changes to early voting, absentee voting and voter ID requirements. Critics of the Supreme Court’s decision argued that Republican officials have used this loophole to restrict the right of left-leaning, racial minorities to vote in their districts.
Since Shelby, several federal lawsuits claiming discriminatory practices have been filed. Last week, new federal lawsuits were filed against five battleground states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada and North Carolina. The lawsuits all claim that Republican officials have unlawfully removed black voters from voter registration lists. In North Carolina, for example, a registered voter in the state can challenge the registration of another voter. In the past — before Shelby — a challenge would be sent to the federal government for “pre-clearance.” According to federal standards, states cannot remove voters’ names from registration lists fewer than 90 days before an election. North Carolina law allows this to occur up to 25 days before an election. The NAACP, recognizing the disproportionate impact this practice has had on black voters in North Carolina, filed the federal lawsuit, which focuses on Beaufort, Moore and Cumberland counties, where thousands of black voters have been challenged. In Beaufort County, 65 percent of the challenges are against black voters, while in Moore County the secretary of the county’s Republican Party challenged the registration of nearly 400 voters.
Meanwhile, in states like Arizona, polling places in areas where racial minorities predominantly live have completely closed. In Phoenix’s Maricopa County, an unnerving trend has emerged. Since 2012, Republican election officials, emboldened by the Shelby decision, have reduced the number of polling places by 70 percent, from 200 polling places to just 60. Maricopa County’s troubles brings back memories of 2006 when the Justice Department sued Cochise County, which is 30 percent Latino, for failing to print election materials in Spanish or provide Spanish-speaking poll workers — a violation of the VRA. Today, Cochise County is the country’s largest “closer” by percentage. Since Shelby, it has closed 63 percent of its polling places.
Elected officials typically cite a number of reasons for polling place closures. Most counties cite an insufficient budget. Some counties have, over the years, transitioned to “vote centers” — a new concept that allows county residents to vote anywhere they choose, instead of an assigned location, to mitigate the inconvenience of fewer voting locations. During the presidential primary, this model proved to be a disaster in Maricopa County, when officials designated far fewer polling places than were necessary. Though elected officials will likely cloak discriminatory intent with claims about budget shortfalls, the public still has a responsibility to investigate and question election processes and seek to ensure that politicians do not establish self-serving policies without oversight.
We unfortunately cannot reverse the impact that the Shelby decision has potentially had on this year’s presidential election. However, we can seek to ensure that voters, especially racial minorities, are not disenfranchised in future elections. Encourage your representatives to support the Voting Rights Amendment of 2015 — a piece of legislation that would restore pre-clearance practices and renewed transparency to elections.
Bailee Ahern is a senior majoring in political science and international relations. “’Lend a Hand” runs every Monday.