Black voters in the South face new threats

9/8/2014, 10:25 a.m.
Despite major advances to access to the ballot box nearly 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act ...
Texas voters wait in line during early voting in 2012. Associated Press

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Despite major advances to access to the ballot box nearly 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Blacks, living primarily in the South and Southwest, continued to face challenges at the ballot box, according to the National Commission on Voting Rights report.

“Though protection under the Voting Rights Act has produced significant gains, African Americans are continually subjected to new threats to their full enfranchisement,” the report stated. “The ongoing protection of the Voting Rights Act is vital to the inclusion of this community.”

Last summer, the United States Supreme Court invalidated the Section 4 coverage formula in the Voting Rights Act that required jurisdictions with a demonstrated history of voter discrimination to “pre-clear” any changes in voting laws with the Justice Department of a federal court. The ruling effectively neutered Section 5 of the VRA.

“Four states formerly covered by Section 5 of the VRA – Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina and Georgia – rank as the worst offenders,” according to the report. The study found that, when it comes to voting discrimination, Texas was the worst state in the country, “including multiple state-level violations.”

Last August, Attorney General Eric Holder filed a lawsuit against Texas over a restrictive voter ID law that went into effect after the Shelby decision, and also sought to support groups who took the Lone Star State to court over redistricting policies.

Following the Shelby v. Holder ruling, civil rights lawyers have increasingly used Section 2 of the VRA to defend voters’ rights across the nation, but the report acknowledged the limitations of Section 2 lawsuits.

“While Section 2 provides important and considerable safeguards against discrimination, it does not provide the same level of protection that Section 5 afforded minority voters,” the report stated. “Section 2 litigation is often complex and can be slow, time-consuming, and expensive,” especially for poor, minority voters with access to limited resources.

Under Section 5, covered jurisdictions had to prove that new laws didn’t create added hardships for poor and minority voters. Section 2 reverses that burden of proof, placing it squarely on the shoulders of the voters and civil rights lawyers.

Since the Shelby v. Holder decision, new, controversial voting laws have been passed, forcing civil rights and Justice Department lawyers to expend resources battling over whether those laws hurt thousands of voters.

The report covered a number of forms of voter discrimination, including minority vote dilution, voter challenges and intimidation, felony disenfranchisement, voter purges and restrictive photo ID requirements.

“The findings show that contrary to the court’s assertion, voting discrimination is still rampant and that states and localities previously covered by Section 4 and Section 5, the [Voting Rights Act] provisions struck down by the court, continue to implement voting laws and procedures that disproportionately affect African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans voters,” Arnwine said.

From 1995-2013, redistricting changes made up 58 of 113 Section 5 preclearance denials, the report said.

“Redistricting plans that dilute minority voting strength typically submerge minority voters in overpopulated districts, divide minority population concentrations to prevent them from comprising the majority of a fairly-drawn district (“fragmentation” or “cracking”), or unnecessarily over concentrate them in a minimal number of districts (“packing”),” the report stated.