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