Senate Discusses Protections for Minority Voters in Voting Rights Amendment Act Hearing

Last Wednesday, the Senate held a hearing on the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 (VRAA), which could be instrumental to the rights of voters in upcoming elections.  Notably, this hearing was held on the one-year anniversary of Shelby County v. Holder, a Supreme Court decision which dramatically diminished voter protections for South Asian Americans as well as other minority communities. This court decision ruled Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional, a section that articulated a formula to determine which jurisdictions are required to have changes to their voting laws pre-cleared by the Department of Justice or a federal court (under Section 5). The purpose of this section was to ensure that minority voters were able to vote in areas with historical evidence of discriminatory voting practices, issues with language minority groups, and low minority voter turnout. As the Shelby decision rendered the Voting Rights Act of 1965 inadequate to protect minority communities from discriminatory election laws, this week’s Senate hearing was a welcome conversation to improve our laws and enhance protections for minority voters.

At the hearing, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) stressed the importance of keeping voting rights a nonpartisan issue, noting that recent state restrictions in high minority states continue to be a challenge. According to Senator Leahy, there is no doubt that voting discrimination still exists, and it is clear one year after Shelby that more protections are needed. Echoing these concerns, State Senator Sylvia Garcia (D-TX) remarked that as there are state laws that restrict voting, what remains of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is not enough to protect minority voters, noting that Texas, in particular, outpaces other states in discriminatory policies. With over 300,000 South Asian Americans in Texas, further restrictions on the right to vote, such as requiring specific forms of photo identification be shown at polling sites and changing geographical districts, have serious impact on South Asian voters as well as electoral candidates.

Nationwide, the number of eligible South Asian voters in the U.S. has increased between 99% and 471% since 2000. A poll of approximately 9,000 Asian American voters interviewed after the 2012 elections reported a total of 1,360 voting problems. These problems included being required to prove citizenship, having their names missing or included with errors at the polling location, being required to vote by provisional ballot, experiencing hostility from poll workers, not having an interpreter or translation available when needed, and being directed to the wrong polling site or voting machine. These issues greatly impact the ability of minority voters to exercise their right to vote. For example, when a person’s name is misspelled or missing from the voter roll at the pollingvoting site—or if a person does not have the required identification, perhaps because of a new and confusing state voter ID law—the voter must vote by provisional ballot. In some jurisdictions, if a voter shows up to the wrong polling location, even due to a change or reduction in the number of polling locations, the voter will be required to vote by provisional ballot. Voting by provisional ballot is risky—poll workers are not always trained on how to properly handle provisional ballots, these ballots are only counted after the election, and it is nearly impossible to find out if your vote was actually counted. In 2010, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission reported that only 66.2% of provisional ballots were counted in full, and according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the highest rates of provisional ballot voting occur in communities with a high percentage of minority voters.  Still, this occurrence is only one of the many possible repercussions of problematic or discriminatory voting laws.

Even the slightest change in election laws can cause people to miss the opportunity to cast their vote or have it be counted, making it all the more important that states with a bad track record of voting violations be required to pre-clear new voting changes, such as laws restricting early voting and reducing the number of polling locations. Failure to protect voters from discriminatory laws prior to an election deprives a large number of Americans from their Constitutional right not only to vote for a candidate to represent their needs and values, but to vote for a candidate that will not continue to disenfranchise them.  The impact of these laws is much more severe on minority voters, particularly as many of these discriminatory laws are geared towards communities or polling sites with high numbers of minority voters.

The proposed VRAA seeks to protect voters by expanding the type of violations covered by the Act to not only violations of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, but also violations of the VRAA and federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. States would also be required to pre-clear changes affecting elections if they accumulated five or more violations in the last fifteen years—including one violation by the state. SAALT looks forward to the development and implementation of legislation that enhances protections for minority voters, particularly as so many meaningful remedies that would further protect the right to vote were lost as a result of the Shelby decision.

To read the text of the proposed bill click here.
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Christina Modi
Policy Intern
South Asian Americans Leading Together, SAALT