Next action on Voting Rights Act could have big impact
ATLANTA (AP) — Within hours of a U.S. Supreme Court decision dismantling a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, Texas lawmakers announced plans to implement a strict voter ID law that had been blocked by a federal court. Lawmakers in Alabama said they would press forward with a similar law that had been on hold.
The ruling a decade ago continues to reverberate across the country, as Republican-led states pass voting restrictions that, in several cases, would have been subject to federal review had the court left the provision intact. At the same time, the conservative-leaning court has continued to take other cases challenging elements of the landmark 1965 law.
The Supreme Court weakened another section of the Voting Rights Act two years ago with a ruling in a case from Arizona. And justices are expected to rule in the coming weeks in still another case out of Alabama that could make it much more difficult for minority groups to sue over gerrymandered political maps that dilute their representation.
“At that point, you have to ask yourself what’s left of the Voting Rights Act?” said Franita Tolson, a constitutional and election law expert and co-dean of the University of Southern California School of Law.
The recent wave of voting changes have been pushed by Republican lawmakers who point to concerns over elections that have been fueled by former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
At least 104 restrictive voting laws have been passed in 33 mostly GOP-controlled legislatures since the 2020 election, according to data analyzed by the Voting Rights Lab, which tracks voting bills in the states.
Alabama could soon add another to the list, one that would make it a crime to help a non-family member fill out or return an absentee ballot. While supporters argue the law is needed to boost security, critics say it could make it difficult for voters who are older, low-income, ill or who do not feel comfortable with the already cumbersome absentee ballot process, which includes a requirement to submit a copy of a photo ID.
“It’s no different from asking me how many jellybeans are in that jar or asking me to recite the Constitution from memory,” said Betty Shinn, a 72-year-old Black woman from Mobile who recently testified against the bill during a legislative hearing in Montgomery.
It was such Jim Crow-era rules that the Voting Rights Act was designed to stop, relying on a formula to identify states, counties and towns with a history of imposing voting restrictions and with low voter registration or participation rates. They then were required to submit any proposed voting changes in advance, either to the U.S. Department of Justice or the federal court in Washington, D.C.
At the time of the 2013 Supreme Court ruling, nine states and a few dozen counties and towns in six other states were on the list for these “preclearance” federal reviews.
In the years since the decision, which came in a case filed by Shelby County, Alabama, lawmakers in the states formerly covered by the preclearance requirement have passed at least 77 voting-related laws, according to a Voting Rights Lab analysis for The Associated Press.
Most improved voter access and would have likely sailed through federal review. But at least 14 of the laws – implemented in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia – added new voting restrictions, the Voting Rights Lab found. These include nine high-profile bills passed in the aftermath of the 2020 election that would have almost certainly drawn significant scrutiny from the Justice Department.
Arizona passed two measures last year requiring voters who use state and federal voter registration forms to prove their citizenship and purging voters based on whether county election officials believe they might not be citizens or qualified to vote.
For groups such as Vote.org, which focuses on voter registration and education in the states, the evolving legal landscape has meant moving quickly to update website information, retrain volunteers and revamp education material to include the latest rules and polling place information.
“It means programs like ours have to work double time, at increased expense to make sure everyone has the opportunity to vote,” CEO Andrea Hailey said.
Without the preclearance process, the Justice Department and outside groups must rely on the courts to address potentially discriminatory legislation after it’s already gone into effect. The Justice Department has filed legal challenges against new voting rules enacted in Texas, Georgia and Arizona since the 2020 election.
Supporters of such new rules say the courts, even after the Shelby decision, remain an important check on legislative action to address any problematic measures.
“Shelby County did not alter the fact that state election rules that discriminate against protected groups like racial minorities are illegal,” said Derek Lyons, president and CEO of Restoring Integrity and Trust in Elections, a group co-founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove. “And in the few instances when courts have identified violations, they have quickly remedied them.”
Voting rights groups have been responding to the restrictions with fresh strategies. In Georgia, for instance, Common Cause set up mobile printing stations across the state so voters could comply with new registration rules that require an ink signature on a printed form.
“It’s only through the work of all these communities and groups on the ground that voters have access,” said Sylvia Albert, the group’s national director of voting and elections. “But doing this post-Shelby, courts are not recognizing the true damage those laws have had.”