On August 30, 2012, a federal court in Washington DC ruled that the new Texas voter identification law, which requires registered voters to show state issued photo identification at the polls, is unconstitutional. A federal three-judge panel ruled that the law was inherently racist and would curtail the voting strength of traditionally oppressed minority and impoverished communities.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed practices that largely targeted the Southern African American communities, effectively denying them the right to vote. These practices, known as “Jim Crow” or Black Code laws,included literacy tests to determine intellectual competence to vote. The Voting Rights Act requires states and districts with a documented history of discriminatory voting suppression to obtain federal permission before implementing any changes that will affect voting. The law largely affected post-antebellum Southern states with long histories of suppressing and denying African, Latin, and Indigenous Americans the right to vote. In the South, it was largely viewed as an attack on states’ rights, an issue that continues to be a right-wing rallying cry.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 required that electoral jurisdictions not make changes to the voting process without “pre-clearance” from the Federal Government. Many Southern states then employed “devices” such as literacy tests to limit voter eligibility, frequently disqualifying African Americans. This “Jim Crow” system, which restricted the civil rights of African Americans, also included restrictions on the right to use public restrooms, stay in hotels, or eat at dime store lunch counters.
Many of these communities also suffer a dilution of voting block strength due to the large percentage of felons in the population who are ineligible to vote. This phenomenon has been coined “The New Jim Crow” by activist attorney Michelle Alexander.
These new voter identification laws are being carefully reviewed by the Federal Election Commission to determine if they are inherently racist in nature and therefore unconstitutional. Some of the new restrictions have been challenged for creating a burden for those voters without transportation to registration offices. Others struggle to obtain the often costly documents required to vote, including birth certificates. In Texas, some found that identification offices were as far as 100 miles outside of their communities making registration an undue burden.
Attorney General Eric Holder called the state issued ID requirement an equivalent of a poll tax, requiring voters to pay a fee for access the voting booth.
“Many of those without IDs would have to travel great distances to get them and some would struggle to pay for the documents they might need to obtain them,” Holder said speaking before to the NAACP in July, citing Texas’ new voter identification legislation. “We call those poll taxes.” In the state of Texas 25% of African Americans compared to 8% of White Americans do not have the proper identification required by the new law.
Many Southern states believe that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is outdated, claiming that Jim Crow racism is a relic of the past. Still, on August 30, 2012 in Texas a federal three- judge district court panel unanimously cited racial discrimination against both Latin and African Americans as a motive and potential by product of the new vote identification law. This ruling acknowledges that enforcement of this law would meet the legal requirement of racial discrimination to qualify as a violation of the Voter’s Rights Act.
Voter ID laws have been blocked in both Texas and Wisconsin in recent years. Other Southern states, including Arizona and Florida, have drafted such laws despite protests and legal challenges. To the north, in Pennsylvania, a judge recently highlighted a key problem with new voter identification legislation, citing that the law did not allow time for voter’s to obtain the documentation and identification in advance of the upcoming election. Tennessee, however, just succeeded in passing a voter’s identification law on October 25, 2012.
Most of the new voting laws that have faced vigorous legal challenges from local, state and national civil rights groups, including the ACLU, NAACP and National Lawyers Guild) have effectively been weakened or blocked.
Pennsylvania is seen as key battleground state critical to the outcome of the upcoming November presidential election. The recent Pennsylvania ruling delayed implementation of the voter identification requirement for one year into the future. The court ruled that enforcing the new law so near to a presidential election was effectively shortening the reaction time of voters and likely detrimental to vulnerable populations. A revised version of the law is expected to pass in the upcoming presidential election.
While physical attacks, late night visits from the KKK , and lynching are no longer commonplace, attempts to intimidate voters in ethnic minority communities remain a common political strategy of the political Right. Long after the heyday of activists like Fanny Lou Hamer, who was viciously beaten by police in Mississippi, and SNCC activists, who were murdered for promoting voter’s registration in Black communities, efforts to suppress the minority representation at the polls remain. 140 billboards that recently appeared in Ohio and Wisconsin in African and Latin American neighborhoods warning that “voter fraud is felony” punishable with jail time and high fines sponsored by an anonymous family foundation. Public outcry of voter intimidation led to the removal of the bill boards for violation of the Voting Rights Act. Clearly the struggle for the basic right to vote are not over.
While attitudes do not change overnight, future demographic projections balance the scales of justice. Ethnic minorities are quickly becoming the new American majority and the long struggle for civil rights and equal representation be ultimately be resolved by simple mathematics.